"An affront to the Brodudes": Games of the Year 2013

It's not been a great year for gaming (the PS4 and XBox One launches have taken up a lot of developers' time), but there have been some good releases worth celebrating.

It was always likely that 2013 would be a quiet year in terms of games with the arrival of new consoles largely stealing the show, and so it turned out to be. Even GTA V, one of the biggest success stories in media history, was very much an exercise in following the proven route. The surprise hit of the year was Gone Home, a game that was such a brazen affront to the warrior spirit of Brodudes everywhere that it will likely lead to the downfall of western civilisation as we know it.

With the Xbox One and PS4 going head-to-head, and Steam OS entering public beta, it looks like 2014 will be a very interesting year. Alas, 2013 has largely been spent watching the players take their places; it will be 2014 when they start hitting each other with chairs, demanding paternity tests and bleeping at each other vociferously.

However despite the creeping sense of being in the calm before the storm there have been some great games this year, and, in no particular order, here are my three favourites (and some honourable mentions).

Metro: Last Light
At the start of the year I thought I was done with the corridor shooter, having not really enjoyed one since FEAR way back in 2005. In an increasingly tired format - hold down W, click on all the faces with the left mouse button, eight hours later game complete - Metro: Last Light renewed my faith.

What Last Light managed to achieve in a way that recent Call of Duty, Bioshock and Halo titles failed to do is make the game actually interesting both through the use of game mechanics and the level design. The giant spider monsters, for example, must be deterred from attacking with light and are bulletproof all over except for their squishy underbellies. This means if you want to kill them you have to chase them into a corner with a torch, causing them to flip over in an angry, shrieking mess so you can shoot them. This is rarely practical, so some parts of the game you just have to fend them off with the light because you don’t have the ammo, the time or the battery power left in the torch to fight them. Because you don’t usually have to kill these monsters to proceed, you start to question whether you are even supposed to kill them, if they will just keep on coming anyway; you start to wonder if the game is telling you to run, if you are fighting a losing battle. Bringing that sort of creeping doubt into a linear shooter is genius level game design.

The game also encourages you not to kill. Human life is valuable, even the lives of your enemies, with the human race as an endangered species. You are encouraged to avoid or knock enemies unconscious, rather than murder them all in honourable combat. The stealth system is not the best, forgiving almost to the point of comedy at times, but it provides an alternative to just blasting everybody. This is a game in a genre characterised by ever increasing levels of pointless brutality and yet you can go through it without actually killing another human being. That in itself is bordering on revolutionary.

The story has a slightly crumby ending but it is gripping until you get there, and is at times genuinely moving. This is not a post-apocalyptic setting like that of Fallout, where the ruins of the old world are the stuff of legends and fables; this is a game set within living memory of the apocalypse itself, there is rawness and hopelessness to it. Lastly, the game is absolutely beautiful to look at - it's far and away the best looking game of this year, or any year for its type. The tunnels are suitably closed-in and creepy, while the outdoors is simply mesmerising, not just from the technical standpoint that it looks incredibly lifelike, but the design of it, the mournful majesty of it all, is incredible.

Wargame: Airland Battle
There is something beautiful about the Wargame series, something that speaks to what games design should really be about. There was no mass media hype, there was no attempt to court controversy or bait people for attention, there were no concessions made in the complexities for the sake of accessibility. Eugen Systems made a game, like the game before it, better; they charged a fair price; they fixed the bugs in a timely fashion and they provided additional maps and units over the months following release without charging extra for them. This should not be remarkable behaviour for a developer and yet in 2013 it is.

Airland Battle is a real time strategy game set amid the cold war, pitting NATO versus Warsaw Pact in a Scandinavian theatre of war. There is none of the bombast and jingoism of the World in Conflict or Company of Heroes series, the game takes a naturalistic and pragmatic approach to the warfare of the era avoiding the easy stereotype of hordes of ill equipped Soviets against technologically superior but outnumbered Westerners.

The game itself is phenomenally good - intuitive and absorbing enough to feel like a simulation, but balanced and designed carefully to provide a fair challenge. The result has a far greater feeling of veracity than something like Company of Heroes 2, while at the same time being easy to pick up. The inclusion of elements like cooperative play is also a very welcome improvement from the original and a good way to learn the game from more experienced players without going through the process of getting relentlessly battered by them in competitive games.

Payday 2
There is so much to hate about this game: the incredibly mean way that it withholds things like weapon upgrades and customisation options; the fact that it promised all manner of different heists and delivered instead a master class in location recycling; the fact that by the time your character is high enough level that you’ve unlocked the abilities required to be a sneaky criminal you have the firepower and armour to not need to sneak; the fact that the developers managed to turn armed robbery into a grind where losing your saved game can put you back to square one. All these things are easy to loathe. Really this game shouldn’t be anything like as good as it is, but so help me it’s just so much damn fun.

Functionally Payday 2 is a cooperative arena shooter, but it frames itself as a game about armed robbery, which wouldn’t you know it is a vastly more compelling scenario than getting swarmed by zombies as is standard for this genre. When everything comes together Payday 2 feels like you’re playing through the big heist scene from Heat, and the game is designed well enough that it comes together more often than not. This is a great team game, tense, challenging and satisfying.

While Payday 2 will always feel like something of a disappointment because of how much better it so easily could have been, it still deserves a lot of respect for how good it actually is. A lot of games have cooperative arena fight modes, from Mass Effect 3 to Call of Duty to Left 4 Dead and Killing Floor, none of theirs are remotely as good.

It is also an interesting measure of where we are as a society when a video game about robbing banks and shooting vast numbers of policemen isn’t considered remotely controversial.

Honourable mentions this year
Saints Row 4: I couldn’t really call this one of the games of the year since it is such a markedly weaker offering than the second and third games in the series. However, it’s not bad, and if you absolutely, positively, have to end a series like Saints Row this is how it should be done. Hopefully this is the end. Much as I love the Saints Row series I would love to see the developers do something new.

Tomb Raider: The return of Lara Croft provided a game that was not outstanding in any specific area but which managed to do everything that it attempted to do very well. This sounds like faint praise, but in retrospect, just looking at how many things Tomb Raider attempted, and succeeded at, it is actually quite a feat. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the franchise from here.

XCOM: Enemy Within: Polished up and fleshed out the already pretty shiny and fleshy XCOM: Enemy Unknown. More missions and more things to do on top of an original game which was already very good can’t be a bad thing. Disappointingly, however, the developers chose not to address the problems with the difficulty curve that blighted the original game. If anything the MEC troopers just make the game even easier.

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes: To sum it up very simply, this game is Civilisation set in a fantastical world of magic and monsters and it is very, very good. This is one of those games that you can lose whole days to; and they will be good days, spent in that comfy, contemplative state that only a proper grand strategy game can provide.

An in-game screenshot of Metro: Last Light. (Image: Deep Silver)

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Matches made in heaven: Carol and Bridge of Spies

Todd Haynes' Carol is as tantalising as hearing a tender ballad on a tinpot transistor. Plus: Bridge of Spies.

“No Excessive Noise” reads the prominent sign in a prison yard in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the cool retelling of a real-life Cold War stand-off. It’s a warning adhered to not only by Spielberg, who knows how to increase tension without any corresponding spike in volume, but also by the director Todd Haynes in his love story Carol. There are other similarities beyond a preference for the back burner over the pressure cooker. Both show people whom society decrees should not be together undergoing a slow dawning of fascination and affection for one another. Both films function as acting duets. And both take place during an uncertain time for the world and specifically for America: the 1950s. Carol is set at the start of that decade, Bridge of Spies towards the end, with the hangover of the Second World War palpable in a light dusting of soot and instability.

Carol begins deceptively with a noirish tracking shot following a fellow along a New York street and into his favourite haunt, where he banters with the bartender. The score by Carter Burwell, laced with a snake charmer’s seductiveness, swells and swoops. Who is this man? What is his secret? It turns out that he is here to hand over the point of view of the film to two women: the petite Therese (Rooney Mara) and her older, elegant drinking companion, Carol (Cate Blanchett). Much has been written in film theory about the “male gaze” – the masculine prism through which almost every film is shot. But even before we see Therese’s work as a budding photographer, this off-kilter prologue passes the baton explicitly from male to female. It’s their story now, not his.

They first meet in a department store. Carol is buying a Christmas present for her daughter. Therese, who works there, recommends a spiffy train set. Carol agrees to have it delivered but leaves little doubt that she would also like to find Therese gift-wrapped in her Christmas stocking. The order placed, she sweeps off without her gloves. This is no innocent act. In Hitchcock’s 1929 thriller Blackmail, a woman’s mislaid gloves incriminate her in a murder. In Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, a lost glove is the catalyst for infidelity and death. Here, the gloves provide a reason to meet again. When Carol takes Therese to lunch, the film’s palette of pale mints and pinks is disrupted by the plump red banquettes. The erotic charge of the encounter is deepened by the impression that the women are seated on giant, shiny lips.

Red, a colour associated with Carol, becomes a kind of contagion in the film. When Therese places a plush red sweater in her suitcase for their first holiday together, it is more than just prudent packing: she is throwing in her lot with her new identity. In a film that avoids orchestrated crescendos of incident, any moments of transformation can easily become the job of the costume department. (Take a bow, Sandy Powell.)

The cinematographer Edward Lachman is also responsible for showing how these characters are boxed in. He shoots through doorways and windows and traffic, so that we are always conscious of obstacles and interference. Watching the film can be as tantalising as hearing a tender ballad on a tinpot transistor.

The nearest that the movie gets to melodrama is when Carol’s relationship with Therese antagonises the custody dispute with her estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Even here, though, Haynes and the screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (the film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt) play nice. We feel the reluctance of people who have only recently survived a world war to stampede once more into combat. For all their disharmony, Carol and Harge cling to their humanity. “We’re not ugly people,” she tells him. It’s true in both senses.

Blanchett and Mara seem visibly to be enhancing and encouraging the other’s work, never more so than in the final scene, which depends for its intensity, like so much of the film, on the exchange of eye contact. Structured as an extended flashback, Carol loops back to the start. And it is true that circles, such as the train track Carol sets up for her daughter, are a recurring motif. But the film doesn’t quite conform to the circular. Though it returns to where it began, the tentative ending makes the narrative Q-shaped. That’s Q for quiet, questioning and queer.

The love in Bridge of Spies is platonic but no less electrifying. The Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) has been arrested in Brooklyn in 1957. He’s going down, no doubt about that, and may even be executed but the appearance of fairness is paramount to the US government. Hence its hiring of James B Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer and a safe pair of hands, to defend Abel. Donovan is really only an intermediary. As the case gives way to a deal to exchange Abel for a US soldier imprisoned in Russia, his effectiveness as a backstage negotiator becomes vital. “We need to have the conversations our governments can’t,” he tells a colleague. The movie keeps diminishing Donovan’s place in the frame, or elbowing him off to the side, even making him ridiculous when he is mugged in sub-zero Berlin. (“How did you lose your coat?” someone asks. “Spy stuff,” he bluffs.)

This is all as playfully disingenuous as the first meeting between Abel and Donovan, which is shot against a glaring light that reduces them both to virtual silhouettes. Spielberg knows he could have Hanks and Rylance with buckets on their heads and they would still act anyone else off the screen. Bridge of Spies, which includes the Coen brothers among its screenwriters, is about the value of empathy as a defence against discord, a subject of unending pertinence. But it is also a blatant celebration of what actors do. When Donovan makes a persuasive argument in court, the judge says: “Nice speech.” He’s enjoying it as much as we are.

The genius of the casting is in the contrast: Hanks, the richly sympathetic screen actor, and Rylance, no less colossal a talent but one comparatively untried in cinema. (He has 11 films to Hanks’s 50-plus.) As an unknown quantity but also a veteran, Rylance imbues Abel with both humility and an enigmatic gravitas. His quizzical eyes are framed by horn-rimmed glasses but his mouth seems horn-rimmed, too; he has the knack of being able to smile and frown at the same time and you could run a train along the furrows in his brow. The opening shot pulls back from him scrutinising himself in the mirror to reveal that he is studying his face, brush in hand, for a self-portrait. Rylance’s mastery of stillness is renowned. Even so, I swear I saw the painting blink first. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State