Needing quarters to take the bus to work, my dad would take me along with him to Thompson’s Arcade to use the change machine. Located on Minnehaha and Lake, it was a dim, small, rectangular room owned by Christians. My dad would slide his dollar bills into the change machine, collect the majority of coins for his bus rides, then hand me two to four quarters to spend on games. Once in a while, some stranger would ask me my ethnicity, then hand me an educational comic in the Vietnamese language about Jesus and sins and what have you. I would politely accept the pamphlet, then go back to shooting demons or jumping over throwing stars.
Fast forward maybe three decades, and we’re here at my grumpy Vietnamese guy’s favorite video games of 2013. This is of course highly subjective, so please — don’t give me any “why isn’t Bioshock Infinite on your list?” (For the record, I played it, and I didn’t like it all that much). I’m a father with a full time job and an arts career to manage, so my play time is sporadic and short. I don’t play online multiplayer at all. My main rubrics were: how many times did I play through? How immersed was I in the game world? How much fun did I have? How did I feel about the characters? How is the overall design of the game and the experience?
And I’m not justifying problematic elements found in these games — I play to get immersed in different worlds, and I usually play one game at a time obsessively until I get bored or frustrated — which means playing games tend to be long slogs for me. I don’t remember 100% everything that happened in each one. And there are slight spoilers found herein.
These are in no particular order.
The Last of Us
The scene that finally convinced me that this game was something special was Tess’s goodbye. Not the actual goodbye — the wordless moment after she demands Joel and Ellie leave her to fend for herself and buy them some time. There are a few silent seconds where Tess has a moment alone, and she’s processing what’s going to happen next. Part of it is, the information on Tess is intentionally sparse but intriguing: I actually care about what’s going to happen to this smuggler. But what’s extraordinary is the game designers care enough about a secondary character to give her a moment like that. In those last few seconds of her life, her two travel companions running away, you can see the frayed nerves in her, the resignation that she has done bad things in her lifetime and that things are not going to end well with her, and her resolve to see it all through anyway. She’s a hard person in a hard story.
Different games have tried to get “mature” or explore “darker themes” before, but unfortunately a lot of that seemed to mean hard rock music, maybe a softcore sex scene or two, and some swearing. Nothing wrong about any of that, but it all seemed quite juvenile. The Last of Us, to its credit, is bleak from jump and maintains the somber mood to the bitter end. It’s a disturbing story for sure, but the tragedies and the hurt, when they happen, all feels earned. It was a compellingly dark tale with a fair degree of moral ambiguity, and for my money it was the best written game of 2013.
Of course, all of this talk about tone and moral ambiguity would be for naught if the game wasn’t fun to play. It’s a gritty survival horror game with heavy emphasis on action. The mechanics are rock solid, the combat is brutal and satisfying, and the enemies are terrifying. There is a little bit of item crafting and weapon modification, and I am a sucker for games that let you carry your enhanced weapons into subsequent playthroughs like The Last of Us does. There was one or two puzzling design decisions though — like you’ll sneak by an area full of enemies, only to be told you need to kill all of them before you’re allowed to progress. When you work that hard and are that patient to observe the monster’s patterns, distract them, sneak past all of them, only to find a locked door and a message that you have to kill all the monsters you just sneaked by, that’s a bummer.
There is at least one interesting gay character present, and the aforementioned Tess is a great anti-hero. The characters of color veer close to the Children of Men level of problematic, but at least they are as morally complicated as the white characters. I just wish there were more of them.
Much as been said, and justifiably so, about the many graphically gruesome ends that Lara Croft will suffer if you fail during this game. I think it’s a testament to how good the voice acting and the tone of the game is, that we jaded gamers flinch when we see these things happen in this 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider series. In this game, Lara is young and inexperienced. She’s a grad student, a survivor of a wrecked ship on a strange island, not the seemingly bulletproof wisecracking superhero of the previous games. She is a human being, and I don’t remember ever relating as much to an iconic video game character as much as I did in to Lara in this game. I’ve never been much of a Tomb Raider or Lara Croft fan until I played this game, which surprised me on all levels: character, quality, and fun factor. You have to make a damn good game for me to dig a premise predicated on a privileged white person rolling up on people’s cultural artifacts, and Tomb Raider 2013 is probably the best pure adventure game I’ve played. The artistic and level design is beautiful, the controls are rock solid, and the game itself is a good mix of exploration, light role playing, and adrenaline pumping set pieces. The voice acting is terrific, and the character development of Lara is fantastic. She is wonderfully animated — most of us could never climb and shimmy the way she does in real life, but it’s a testament to the game designer’s attention to detail that we believe Lara can.
In a game full of big moments, here are two: Lara climbs a windy radio tower to attempt to signal for help. Simply climbing this rickety ladder buffeted by winds is a teeth clenching experience — it’s so well done that you feel a genuine sense of accomplishment when she reaches the top. Second, as the game progresses and Lara survives and fights through a ton of scenarios, Lara is saddened by the death of her friends and toughened by her experiences — and the cultists have slowly learned to fear her. There’s this great moment about halfway through the game (not a cutscene, actual gameplay) where a fight breaks out and the enemy cultists start yelling at each other in fear, saying things like “oh no it’s her!” And Lara, her voice just a touch ragged and crazy, yells “that’s right you bastards, I’m coming!” And it is the most thrilling, earned moment of badassery I’ve ever experienced in a game.
Fair warning — there is a small undercurrent of Orientalism running through the game, as it takes place on an island near Japan. But a lot of this is found in the artistic design and is relatively subdued. Thankfully, the designers of the game decided to make the island a kind of Bermuda Triangle that has attracted shipwrecked sailors from around the world, so the villains aren’t all Japanese or Pacific Islanders.
X-Com: Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within
I love it when a plan is executed to perfection, and this year’s X-Com reboot offers frequent satisfaction in that department. You manage an international organization fighting off an extraterrestrial invasion. Part turn-based strategy action, part organizational development simulator, it’s got that addictive one-more-turn feel that Firaxis excels at. About one half of the game is controlling a squad of soldiers against extraterrestrials in turn based combat. The other half is managing resources, allocating research and development, and expanding X-Com headquarters. It’s not for the weak of heart: X-Com can punish you for a decision or lack of attention to a tiny detail that you made hours before. I once lost a very important game asset because one of my ships lacked a gun that would have enabled me to take on a large UFO that randomly attacked a country — and I missed the chance to have my ship ready by seconds. But because every action takes time (arming a gun takes 24 hours, and transferring an anti-UFO fighter to another country takes 3 days — let alone having done the necessary research for those ships and guns, which can take up to 20 days or more), you can find that you’ve basically screwed yourself hours ago. Hint: invest in satellites and satellite uplinks/nexus as a priority and use overwatch all the time.
In addition to the addictive gameplay, there are at least three Asian male NPC’s on your side (if have all the DLC and expanded content), and one of them becomes a playable character! Outside of the martial arts genre or a game set completely in Asia, this is very rare. There are also quite a few Asian voice actors, for the NPCs as well as the soldiers. The game offers robust customization: there are troops of all genders and races, from all over the world, with customizable faces, hair, names, voices, and call signs.
I do have some nitpicky beefs, though. There are times when you swear the game hates you. Your soldiers will have the high ground, cover, and a high percentage shot, and yet your trooper will still miss — which is exactly the stroke of “luck” the computer needs to murder one of your soldiers in the very next round. Normally, this would be fine — a 97% chance still means there’s a 3% chance to miss — but the computer never seems to miss its high percentage shots. You leave your flank open the way the aliens sometimes do, and your soldier is going to die. You get no breaks as a player. That’s part of what makes victory so satisfying. But there are times when the computer doesn’t seem to be playing by its own rules.
And why can you choose the race, name, and appearance of your soldiers but not the gender? My first game, there was like two women in the crew to about thirteen men. It’s randomized, so my next playthroughs had more gender balance — but all the same, it’s strange that a game with so much customization insists on selecting the genders of your troops. Similarly, the game selects the class of your soldiers for you — you have no say in whether that rookie becomes an assault class or a heavy class or a sniper. Why not let us choose? And with the new options given with Second Wave, why not have an option where character growth depends on actions — i.e., aim goes up due to shooting, experience points awarded to the support class for healing allies, etc? In fact, why not let us choose the class of each soldier, and let us distribute points when they level up where we want to? I’m funny like that — I want total control. But in a strategy RPG game as top notch as this, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
If you haven’t played this yet, definitely get X-Com: Enemy Within. It has the main game, plus the added Slingshot and Second Wave DLC and the Enemy Within expansion pack all added.
Hey look — an Asian American video game character with an actual backstory! Here’s a single player game where an Asian American man is the lead playable character in a narrative driven game. For the record, I bought True Crime: L.A. back in the day and had high hopes for it. We know how that turned out. I was excited to see that True Crime would be resurrected as Sleeping Dogs and would feature an Asian American protagonist in a story inspired by one of my favorite movies (Infernal Affairs) set in Hong Kong, and previews of the game looked awesome. Unfortunately the publishing company went under, and it looked like we would never be able to play this game.
Luckily Square Enix — of all companies — picked it up, and we got to play one of the best narrative driven open world games of this console generation. You play an undercover Chinese American cop infiltrating the triads in Hong Kong, which makes more sense than the many video games set in Asia that still center white men as the primary protagonist. It’s a thrill to walk down the streets and hear banter in Cantonese and English. That might seem like a little thing to many people, but part of privilege is not understanding how seldom those of us people of color have someone who looks like us as a main protagonist, or hear languages from our corner of the world appear as normal in a game.
The game engine itself is marvelous. The hand to hand/counter combat system has been likened to the one in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, though Sleeping Dogs veers more towards Chinese martial arts, and is deeply satisfying. The cars and motorcycles are fun to drive, and the carjacking animation is ridiculous and fun. The controls are tight and intuitive. I’m not much of a skill gamer, but I was pulling off elaborate combos and counters with relative ease. The game’s scope is a good size: it’s large, but it’s not so huge that it feels overwhelming. There’s a finite end to it, which is welcome. The dating subgame is pretty cheesy (and they also underuse the voice acting of Yunjin Kim), but I like that some of the dates are women asking you to compete against them in unexpected ways — like a rooftop parkour race. And in a game that features a stellar Asian and Asian American cast — Tzi Ma as Old Salty Crab is a stand out, and has not gotten nearly enough accolades for his performance.
I do wish that the Asian women characters had more to do. There’s an Asian female cop, who is competent and good, but I wish she got to go on more cooperative missions with the main character. Maybe they can both be playable characters in the sequel? The game didn’t sell too well — sales were OK, but not necessarily enough to guarantee a sequel. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a new IP, bad marketing, or people don’t want to play a game that features an Asian dude. Who knows? It’s a shame because it’s a damn good game and deserves a sequel. More Old Salty Crab!
Saint’s Row 4
Yes, this series is juvenile, offensive, and makes light of urban crime. But that’s a big reason I prefer it to the wanna-be Hollywood pretensions of Grand Theft Auto. The difference is Saint’s Row doesn’t take itself too seriously. When playing Rockstar games, I always feel like I’m playing something the cool kids made to show off how cool they think they are, even if it’s not enjoyable for me. And it almost never is with Rockstar Games — their controls feel too sloppy, their menus and interface are clunky. Before I come across as a hater, let me just say it’s cool — I know I’m in the minority when I say I’m just not that impressed with Rockstar games. That’s fine, it’s just personal taste. If Grand Theft Auto aspires to be akin to Hollywood productions like Goodfellas or Heat, Saint’s Row is more like a Dave Chappelle sketch.
Rather than try to mimic the gravitas of Hollywood crime dramas, Saints Row 4 knows it’s a video game. It is cheeky, it makes fun of gamers and the gaming industry, and most importantly, it’s fun. The controls are solid and easy to manage, the mini games are hilarious (try doing the insurance fraud minigame without busting a gut), and the cars and weapons are cool and customizable. I had my entire street crew dressed up as ninjas, and I rode around town on a pink moped while wearing full samurai armor.
Don’t let the marketing of SR4 fool you into thinking the lead playable character, the leader of the gang and the newly appointed President of the United States(!) is a white guy who could be in a boy band. The game features one of the most robust character customization suites I’ve ever seen: you have full control over race, gender, voice, body type, even your swagger, your victory dance and your taunt. And that’s before you’ve picked out the thousands of clothes and hundreds of tattoos available. Just think of the work that entailed: with four voice options for each gender, that means they needed to record eight different voice actors for the lead protagonist. What’s especially refreshing about this game, is you can be of any body type, gender, race, wear any gender clothes, it doesn’t matter — you’re still President, and you’re still the leader of the crew. That type of freedom to create an avatar that looks like you, and you’re still included in the narrative of this world, is refreshing, especially considering that we’re almost always forced to play straight gender conforming white men in video games. There are also a lot of people of color and women in the voice cast who all do stellar work, and I’m a bit puzzled why the mainstream gaming press hasn’t given them more praise.
All that being said, I don’t know if SR4 is an improvement over its predecessor. While the superpowers are well done and loads of fun, and the dialogue and mood is as hilarious as ever, the premise and gameplay is so over the top that it feels ungrounded — somewhat alien. Pun intended. The superpowers almost make the cool cars and weapons moot. This could just be me, though — the clowning of text based adventures in SR3 will forever be a highlight for me. SR4 is still a joy to play — it’s inspiring to feel like the makers of this game remember that video games are supposed to be fun. Any game that gives me orders through Keith David, playing himself as the Vice President, and lets me power jump into a group of enemies wielding a dub step gun while my in-game mix tape serendipitously plays the Pharcyde’s “Aw Shit,” then regardless of your race and gender, lets you make out with an Asian thug voiced by Daniel Dae Kim, is going to get a place on any best-of list I come up with.
State of Decay
Sigh. An open world zombie survivor game that lets you switch between an ensemble of characters, with light RPG character development and a focus on community relations, resource management, and base fortification? It sounds like the game of my dreams. Unfortunately, a slew of design decisions trouble this ambitious game. There’s a simulation that can’t be turned off, which drains your resources while you’re not even playing, and ends up favoring those who can play the game for long stretches at a time. You can’t control who in your survivor’s camp does what. So that sole mechanic you’ve been working for hours to find? He might go off on a scavenging run and get herself lost or killed. There are some very obscure or outright missing details important to the game — why is there such a large material resource drain per day? How does the game decide these penalties? What exactly does the built-in workshop at Snyder’s fix? You can only carry one resource rucksack at a time, and you can only deposit it at your homebase, not one of your outposts. The zombies, while not smart, are programmed to be obsessive — once they see or hear you, they zero in on you even if you run and hide from them. The best way to handle a throng of zombies or a powerful special zombie is to use a car and run them over, which gets old pretty fast. And these are design flaws — I won’t even get into the large list of technical issues and bugs that make the game even more frustrating.
But then again, I played this game over and over again, technical issues and bugs aside, because I liked working on developing my survivors and there is satisfaction to be had upgrading your base. For a gamer like me, that loves action, atmosphere, and development of characters and resources, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. There are some bad design decisions, and lots of bugs, but this is the first game from an independent studio. There are some great ideas here. Hopefully there will be a sequel with better technical execution. And a character editor where you can customize your survivors, kinda like in X-Com, would be nice. You reading this, Undead Labs?
RUNNER UP: Resident Evil Revelations
Resident Evil 4 is one of my favorite games of all time. To put it kindly, the only game from the franchise that’s been good since RE4 has been this year’s port of Revelations. It has bad graphics and feels a little clunky, but it has that addictive Resident Evil gameplay of the days of yore.