2013: Gaming Year in Review

This is the annual post where I basically go through all the notable and interesting games I played this year, wax poetic about them, and create new forms of hyperbole to describe my personal games of the year. Last year’s post can be found here, and previous year’s posts can be found on my high school blog, which I’m keeping hidden for all the reasons. 

2013 will be remembered for two major movements within gaming: the rise of the American e-sports scene, and the proliferation of the queer games scene. I don’t belong to either of those scenes per se, but their growth is cause for celebration: the diversification of scenes to include people outside of that mainstream “gamer” community means that more and more people will become “gamers”, which is what I’ve always wanted. I hope to see soon a world where there will be a scene for every imaginable type of person, and I believe we’re making strides in that direction.

What transpired in Room 2014 at 2013's GDC will be important in years to come.
What transpired in Room 2014 at 2013’s GDC will be important in years to come.

Just a year ago, we entered a period of unprecedented change to how games are made, processed, and understood, leading to the proliferation of newfound developers, genres, subject matters, and modes of play. Now, that trickle of change has grown into an avalanche, and the game industry that exists today welcomes with open arms games like Surgeon Simulator, Gone Home, and The Stanley Parable.

Five years ago, the thought of a world like this would have been unimaginable.

Meditating on change in the industry, the importance of our place in time, and the potential we now have to steer the course of gaming’s destiny is something that I’ve done in previous posts, and really, I’m just repeating myself here. But I can’t help but reiterate my enthusiasm: this is the gaming world that I’ve always wanted to live in. In 2010, I yearned for more daring games unafraid to try something different and interesting, and in 2013, those games exist everywhere I look.


Telltale’s hit point-and-click adventure The Walking Dead was the first game that I played this year, and one of the most emotionally taxing games that I’ve ever played. Its a story-driven game about leadership, the core mechanic of navigating dialogue trees is contextualized in a way that every decision carries great ethical weight,  asking players questions not like “what is right or wrong?” but rather “who do I want to hurt least?”. Telltale manages to maintain this sense of constant heft and weight throughout the game’s five episodes, concluding in a cathartic, heart-wrenching ending that left me drained, shaken, and worn.

Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus

Next was The Unfinished Swana game by USC IMD alums Giant Sparrow, a first-person puzzle game that iterates upon its core mechanic beautifully. The Unfinished Swan is videogame comfort food, it’s a heartwarming, homey tale that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and loved inside. As I played this game with my friends, I couldn’t help but subconsciously maintain a splendid grin throughout the entire experience.

Shortly afterwards, we played through Shadow of the Colossusa monumental achievement of the sixth console cycle, which holds up with remarkable grace. The vastness of the gameworld dwarfs the player’s tiny, insignificant avatar, imbuing exploration with a tangible sense of forlorn loneliness. The giants which walk the Forbidden Lands trot with a quiet, fearsome majesty. Each battle with a Colossus carries a hefty emotional arc, ranging from the apprehension of the approach, the confusion and panic of trying to discover the beast’s weakness, the empowering, triumphant thrill of learning that weakness, and the catharsis… then sadness, of victory. Incredible game, definitely an annual playthrough for me.

Surgeon Simulator 2013
Surgeon Simulator 2013

Surgeon Simulator 2013 is the game most indicative of where we stand in the history of this medium today. Here, we have a game developed in 48 hours at the 2013 Global Game Jam, a series of once-underground game-making competitions. It was not funded not by publisher, nor Kickstarter campaign, nor grant money. Surgeon Simulator wasn’t even a good game by traditional measures of design, featuring an intentionally unintuitive control scheme, the game is in essence an interactive joke. By all prior standards of game funding and publishing, Surgeon Simulator 2013 should have been quietly forgotten amongst the hundreds of games designed at these events. And yet, through an unforeseen wrinkle in how this world works, Surgeon Simulator was reviewed higher, and sold better, than AAA sequels like God of War: Ascension, Crysis 3, and Gears of War: Judgement. Consumers are changing, and are now welcoming new games willing to challenge long-encoded standards of design, making room for games about butterfingered surgeons. Its an underdog story so glorious that it could have only happened by accident.


In March, Bioshock Infinite, a game which I had eagerly anticipated for years, finally came out. It was the week of GDC, and all my game studies classes were cancelled, so I completed the game in a day. While upon reflection, the game is brimming with design and narrative flaws so basic that it’s a wonder how it passed playtesting, I found Bioshock Infinite to be an enjoyable, albeit overhyped and subsequently disappointing, shooter. My enjoyment of it came mostly out of its uniquely postmodern subtext, which challenges the notion of meaningful choice and autonomy in story-driven games. My analysis of it, which got featured on Gamasutra, has become basically my only claim to fame.

Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite

Next up was the delightful FEZ. Like many, I discovered FEZ through Indie Game: The Movie and was tightly invested in Phil Fish’s painful, triumphant, underdog story. FEZ was fantastic with its daring experimental structure and wondrous difficulty. FEZ’s obscure puzzle designs and interdimensional platforming harkens back to memories spent of school playgrounds, secrets and rumors of the Mew under the Viridan City truck and the Triforce chest in Forest Temple spread like gossip. FEZ is a game meant to be played in parallel with a good friend, sharing every delightful discovery along the way with childlike wonder.

I didn’t know what to think of The Last of Us when I first learned about it a year ago. A third-person action game set in the zombie apocalypse featuring an old guy and a girl seemed pretty unoriginal given Naughty Dog’s fantastic pedigree, and thus, I went into it with doubts. When I finally played it, I found it unique and incredible in a multitude of ways. Combat is disempowering, limited resources and a relatively underpowered protagonist lends the game a sense of dread and despair that gives way into a panicked chaos of gunfire, culminating in the cathartic release of survival. The game’s story, one of the strongest told this year, calls into question the social demarcations separation “us” and “them” and meditates on themes of love and sacrifice.

The Last of Us

Thomas Was Alone was one of the cutest games I’ve ever played. It is both one of the best puzzle-platformers to come out of a scene rife with them and perhaps the best demonstration of gameplay-as-metaphor and the proceduralist aesthetic to have come out this year. The way it characterizes its quadrilaterals and lends them personality through kinaesthetics and functionality elevates this puzzle-platformer into a delightful story about friendship, jealously, need, and identity. Thomas Was Alone’s rectangles undergo entire character arcs with meaningful conflicts and conclusions, and the game communicates those arcs through simple game feel, lending its characters a humanity not seen in all the dialogue trees and facial animation systems developers have produced thus far.


I disliked Metal Gear Solid when I first played it, but decided to give the series a second go after studying writing about postmodernism, a cultural aesthetic that the series adheres to very much. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, which sheds the series’ cyberpunk postmodernism to focus on a Cold War-era spy fantasy, changed my perspective on the series substantially. A delightfully Japanese pastiche of 20th century spy fiction, Metal Gear Solid 3 is perhaps the most restrained and grounded game in the series (which is not saying much given Kojima’s predilection for vampires, cyborg-ninjas, and the Illuminati). Every room in Snake Eater‘s vast world is a playground for emergent strategies for traversal, coupled with a variety of tools from guns, to chloroform rags, and alligator hats, Metal Gear Solid 3’s sneaking system is an incredible sandbox for self-expressive play.

Gone Home

Standards for environmental storytelling have shot up over the course of the generation. Flavor text that was communicated by pressing the “interact” button next to an object is now communicated visually, through intricately detailed 3D models in a gameworld. The juxtaposition of objects creates place and story, and narrative discovered rather than delivered. This made traversal through the beautiful environments of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and Metroid Prime a delight, and it is wonderful to see a game like Gone Home emerge from this burgeoning tradition. Evoking nostalgia for the nineties, Gone Home communicates a tale about a family that underwent a great change while its older daughter was off at college. The means of progressing through the story is snooping through the spaces each family member inhabited. Characters go through entire character arcs as the player creeps down a hallway, the catalysts for their change evident in the things they carried. Its a tough game that dances in and out of some uncomfortable themes, many of which strike close to home, and one of the most structurally interesting games of the year.

On the complete opposite side of the gaming spectrum, XCOM: Enemy Unknown consumed a substantial amount of my time early in the semester. Its an incredibly difficult, incredibly addictive turn-based strategy game that maintains a constant sense of desperation in every aspect of its design. The dread can become overwhelming as players become strapped for time, resources, and personnel, lending dramatic weight to every single decision. The death of a single high-ranking soldier from a stray bullet can cause entire plans to crumble in an instant. But when the dice land in one’s favor and a plan goes perfectly as intended, the triumphant rush of victory is unparalleled.

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero is surreally magnificent, and maintains a consistency of vision that bleeds into every single corner of its dreamy aesthetic. It is a magical-realist point-and-click adventure game with art inspired by late 20th-century theatrical set design and poetic writing imbued with a nostalgic sense of Americana. It’s as if Steinbeck’s sentimental prose met the magical wonder of Rudolfo Anaya’s, creating a spiritually evocative tale of Conway’s journey down the Zero’s rabbit hole. For anyone even mildly interested in the unusual, Kentucky Route Zero‘s whimsical and forlorn world is one worth exploring.

Personal Game of the Year

Naming a personal game of the year is a substantial ordeal for me, simply because I feel a sense of guilt for overlooking all the great games that I considered for it, especially in 2013, a banner year for unusual and interesting games: digital, physical, analogue, and installation. And in the shadow of that regret, I must name The Stanley Parable as my personal game of the year.

Yes, systemically speaking, The Stanley Parable might not even be a game, academic standards of language and game studies considered, it fits more under the umbrella of interactive fiction than videogames, but that’s beyond the point. The point is that The Stanley Parable is interesting. 

The Stanley Parable

If Bioshock Infinite called into question ideas of the existence of autonomy in an authored piece of fictionthen The Stanley Parable takes that metacommentary to its intellectual extreme, calling into question ideas of player motivation, narrative structure, meaningful choice, the lusory attitude, the player-avatar relationship, freedom in authored fiction, and the conflict between player and designer. The game posits those questions in short, fifteen minute bursts that demand reflection and study, performing its commentary more elegantly than Ken Levine’s bloated, frustrating shooter ever could.

Look, the core mechanic of the Stanley Parable is making binary choices to influence the outcome of a story, which in itself isn’t very interesting, essentially being tantamount to any number of terrible dating-sims. But when contextualized with questions about narrative structure and game design, The Stanley Parable‘s mechanics become ironically rife with meaning, evolving into the catalyst for engaging conversation. While many may rightfully criticize The Stanley Parable for not being a game per se, that does not make it any less interesting as a piece of interactive media, and in a period where all we’re asking for are games that take daring risks, engage with challenging themes, and are in essence unique and interesting, isn’t The Stanley Parable exactly what we wanted?

Thank you and Merry Christmas! 

2012: Gaming Year in Review

I usually do a “Year in Review” post each year around Christmas Eve where I reflect on games that I have played and name a personal game of the year. In celebration of the successful funding of LA Game Space, I am publishing this blog post early.  

My taste in gaming has changed substantially over the past year, I am no longer satisfied by epic narrative experiences and find myself seeking out brief, esoteric, and quirky interactive experiences that I’ll never forget. On my previous site, I wrote “Year in Review” posts where I would reflect and wax poetic on games that I’ve played and pick out a game as my personal game of the year. This year’s post will be a little different as it will include more nondigital and alternate reality games, giving us a broader range of experiences to discuss. My criteria for selecting games has also changed, and the games that I am about to discuss don’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of “fun”, but under that of “impactful”.

Games That I’ve Played

For the sake of readability, I won’t write about the games I played at the Global Game Jam, but will just say that Chelsea Howe’s To What End is totally worth the five minutes it takes to play.

I started the year off by playing both the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Both games were smartly done. While I felt that Skyward Sword suffered from a poorly paced introduction and midsection, I took note that the Impressionistic art style suited the spirit of the series perfectly and that the game’s motion controls finally made good on Nintendo’s original promise to create a game based around true 1:1 motion swordplay, and in many ways, it was the best motion-controlled traditional game that I’ve ever played. Skyrim was brilliant in it inspiring breadth, while narratively it sucked and there were a great many things that broke my immersion into it’s fantastic world, I was consistently driven to adventure for eighty hours with my Nord character Pixels. Alas, I eventually got bored raiding dungeons and hunting for improved loot, and went on a murderous rampage in Riften leaving much of the town’s population in pieces.


Then Journey entered my life.

This is the part where I sit at my keyboard and stare at my screen, not quite knowing what to put down to post. In many ways, Journey has become an important McGuffin in my life. I first played it days before I was accepted into USC’s Interactive Media Division and my life changed forever, I discussed it at length with my codevelopers at Subtle Stone before we separated for good, I played it to meditate before I left for college, and when I arrived at IMD, I discovered that it touched and inspired the souls of the colleagues that I was about to share my career with. Somehow, we had gathered around Journey collectively as an experience that had shaped, defined, and moved our infantile career in gaming.

But yes, Journey was something special. It touched my soul and shook my very being by speaking in a universal language transcendent of cultural boundaries. Play it.

After Journey I played Bastion. If I could find a word to describe this game, it would be luscious. Its rich coloration and enthralling music captivated me, its fluid combat and simple character customization was fun as hell. Most intriguing was Bastion’s narrator, Rucks, whose grizzled voice is as memorable to me as Morgan Freeman’s or Liam Neeson’s. His narration contributed much to Bastion’s emotional overtone, and I found myself invested in the story and found the ending to be clever in its self-reflexivity.

Up next was Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. I played this game on my laptop, and missed out on a lot of the tablet & touch exclusive features. While I didn’t quite like the game’s puzzles and found them at times illogical and strange, its aesthetics and ambitions appealed to me. Give this game a try if you’re into the esoteric.

I liked Dear Esther, and you have every right to call me pretentious, but you know that that’s not true. It didn’t strike me that the island was a manifestation of the protagonist’s subconscious until the very end, but that made the second playthrough much sweeter. It reminded me much of Inception, it’s a brainy game that will make you think and dig deep into your intellect.

Dear Esther
Dear Esther

Itching for a shooter, I downloaded Crysis to my Playstation 3 and enjoyed how the first few levels encouraged creative ways to deal with combat situations. It was unique, fun, and reminiscent of the original Far Cry, one of my favorite shooters out there. Alas, when aliens were introduced, the game became far more generic, linear, and unfun.

I Arrive at USC & Meet IMD

IMD 2016, The Settlers of CTIN, The Unnamed Game Development Group, The Indie Circlejerk. I have met no group of people quite like my colleagues in my undergraduate class at the USC Interactive Media Division. Their drive, ability, initiative, creativity, kind-heartedness, and courage are above and beyond anything I’ve ever seen, they’re both good as developers, but even better as people. It is both an honor and a joy to work amongst them for these short few years, if not for the rest of my career.  They’ve already done a lot by introducing me to a few games, surprisingly, nondigital ones.

SCA 2016
SCA 2016

Two of the first folks I met from IMD got me into Dungeons and Dragons, having loved computer role-playing games like KOTOR, Fallout, and Chrono Trigger, it was necessary to discover where these games got their roots. When I signed up to join them one Friday night for DnD, I had no idea what I was getting into. The game’s ability to collectively pool the imaginations of a diverse group of people, bond them closely together, and leave them with inside jokes galore is astounding. I was a schizophrenic, dark-skinned rogue named Pixels with long purple hair and a goatee, and the situations that I have plunged my party into will stay with me for some while. Situations like rolling a critical miss on a disarm device check and nearly killing half my party. This game has brought together my adventuring party, and we’ve played many things together outside of DnD, like Uncharted 3 and the Jak & Daxter trilogy. 

Speaking of which, what was the deal with that ship scene in Uncharted 3? C’mon, seriously.

Shortly thereafter, I was introduced me to Cards Against Humanity, a party game for horrible, horrible people. That game has the unique ability to reveal facets of a person’s personality that you would have never expected. Its good fun and consistently hilarious.


Shortly after, a friend introduced me to this digital web game called Frog Fractions, which taught me… things… Its best that I don’t talk about it. Play it, you’re never going to forget it.

I also got to replay the Mass Effect trilogy as part of a charity speedrun. Bad stuff happened, Garrus shouldn’t be tech expert and Miranda is in no shape to save the galaxy alone.

Reality Ends Here

The most pervasive game in my life at USC was this alternate-reality game that Jeff, Tracy, and Simon dreamed up called “Reality Ends Here”, of which the entirety of the first semester of Freshmen year is based around. It was introduced to us minutes after we met each other in the courtyard of SCA with a mysterious message coded into fortune cookies that we received at our lunch leading us to a mysterious URL on the web. After a bit of snooping around, we were led to a secret unlabeled room in the School of Cinematic Arts called the “Game Office”. We were given our cards and were set off on our own to create things. Less than 24 hours after the Dean of SCA welcomed us to the school, I found myself operating an expensive DSLR video-rig for our very first project.

I formed an impromptu team and for a brief month, was obsessed with competing with other groups to win each week by producing high-scoring media. We won two weeks in a row, our reward experiences: a tour of Jim Henson studios by Transformer’s producer Don Murphy, and an advance viewing of Gates McFadden’s (Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: TNG) new play. But most rewarding was the experience of playing the game itself, the anarchic and chaotic spirit of running around the residence halls with expensive camera equipment and a script that we wrote in a few hours has been an unforgettable experience.

Reality Ends Here Cards
Reality Ends Here Cards

Reality Ends Here won the renowned Impact Award at IndieCade for showing the most potential for games to do social good and change some facet of society. G4TV did an excellent piece on the ARG:

ARG? Card Game? Film Project? It’s all of that and more. Reality Ends Here started out as a project for USC freshmen looking to do something a little different. As the story goes, the Reality Committee will be keeping an eye on you and judging how you play the game. Players work in teams as they put together groups of cards that they receive in a packet. Cards combine to develop an idea that the students need to make happen either through film, animation, or game. Cards tell you what kind of story and what will appear in said story. Cards add points to your project, but make it more challenging with each additional item you need to include. You make it and send it in.

More than just the motto for the USC School, Reality Ends Here gave freshmen an education that extended far outside their classroom. Contestants got to meet special mentors and got their “missions” viewed by some of the top players in the business. For some it might look like a game, Reality Ends Here showed a handful of students the beginning of a wonderful life.

I fell out of the game for a good two months when life got in the way, but I do have a wonderful concluding piece for my participation in this project, and for many of the people who dedicated much of their first semester to the game, it has been a life-changing experience that truly set off their careers in film in an epic way. Consider for one the Xander Legacy team, whose project The Sci-Fi Supercut managed to find its way onto the front page of Wired. The team has since decided to reconstitute itself into its own production company.

Game of the Year

Naming a game of the year is difficult this year, simply because I have decided to encompass nondigital games into the mix, diversifying the already wide range of experiences that I could have through games. Dungeons & Dragons showed me the original promise of the procedurally generated story and the simple fun that could come out of collectivized imagination. Journey exists in my life as both a mysterious symbol that has the tendency of showing up at significant times and a game showcasing the potential of video games to make us better, more loving people. Reality Ends Here made my first-semester of college truly one-of-a-kind.

Indiecade Impact Robot & Game Designer Jeff Watson
Indiecade Impact Robot & Game Designer Jeff Watson

What is different about this year’s batch of GOTY nominees is that each of them has rubbed off on me and has changed how I live in some small way. I’m not judging these games purely on their fun, but on their overall impact on me. Dungeons & Dragons showed me the original promise of role-playing games, the potential of collaborative storytelling, and introduced me to a valuable group of people that I expect to spend time with in the foreseeable future. Journey transcended the emotional ambitions of most games and touched my spirit in a way that I would have never expected from a piece of art. Reality Ends Here reenergized a creative side of me that atrophied over the summer and introduced me to some incredible collaborators at USC that I wish to work with for much of my life. To choose one of these games would shirk not only the other games that I have nominated, but the incredible people that were involved in my experiences with that game and impacted my life in some way, shape, or form. Playing these games with other people and gathering around the significance of these games in our worlds made these games great, and the people that I have met and shared this chapter of my life with through these games have been impactful on me.

To that extent, I must say that, with great apologies to both my adventuring party and the people of my IMD class, Reality Ends Here stands boldly as my personal game of the year. Wearing its dream on its sleeve, it exists as a shining example of how pervasive games can alter our perception of reality and change how players connect, compete, and interact with each other, fundamentally changing how we go about our everyday lives at SCA. Ideas come randomly and through the right team-chemistry, become realized in amazing ways. It is a unique experience and a highly sophisticated ARG that has changed the lives of its most dedicated players in huge ways. With escalating interest in pervasive and ARGs amongst the public, Reality Ends Here can set off a shockwave of positive social change throughout the world.