NOTE: THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS A STAFF WRITER AT THE NOW DEFUNCT SPLITKICK.COM

1. Tales of Xillia.

tales_of_xillia_1I’m as stunned as you. I’ve enjoyed Tales games in the past, but past games in the series have never been something I’d considered a GOTY contender, let alone capable of winning the whole thing outright. Forget games as a whole for a second, for this to be even the best JRPG to come out this year with contenders like Fire Emblem and Ni No Kuni is a pretty radical statement. So why is Xillia so great?

First, it’s the separated storytelling between the two main characters. It’s such a crazy, ambitious idea that should have failed miserably. I’m still baffled that major moments in the story happened off screen for me (since the character I chose wasn’t there at the while they occurred) and my reaction was curiosity and more engagement rather than anger and frustration. I’m still not sure quite how they did it. My wife and I picked separate characters and we spent hours after we both finished asking, “So what was going on while my character was over here?” and, “What was this event like?” I originally said in my review that I thought this game was inviting players to play it twice, but I no longer think this is the case. Fiction too often shows us everything. Human life is often about not seeing every piece of the puzzle, and the way this game plays with that notion is, simply put, magic.

The other reason is that, frankly, when video games have treaded into environmental morality they’ve been rather silly and one sided. The fact that Xillia pushes so hard to make sure you see both sides of every issue, that every enemy and character is well-motivated and sympathetic, shows you that even the JRPG genre can sit at the big kid table. Add to this great gameplay, voice acting, and artwork and picking this as my game of the year seemed like a no brainer.

2. The Last of Us

thelastofusThe greatest moment in this game isn’t when you realize they’re are three clickers and you only have one shiv, though that’s amazing as well. It isn’t when you enter a completely optional room that you only happened to stumble upon and realize that it’s entirely full of art only made for that closet, though that’s astounding. It’s a cut scene. You don’t even have to be holding a controller to experience it, but it’s probably the greatest gaming moment of 2013.

Ellie and the player realize simultaneously that she can’t trust the other person in the room and suddenly the player is forced to not only embrace the terror of the situation, but be accountable for every action you’ve taken earlier in the game. Unlike Nathan Drake, with whom you slaughter thousands without question, TLoU forces you to question, analyze, and live with the reality of Joel’s decisions and actions. That moment alone earns it a spot on my list, but the game as well boasts brilliant visuals, stunning voice acting, tense gameplay, and one of the most mature and challenging endings I’ve seen in video gaming.

3. Animal Crossing: New Leaf
animalcrossinge1It might have been the year of Luigi, and a new Zelda and Mario were also released to universal praise, but nothing quite captured the zeitgeist like Animal Crossing did this summer. We were all playing it. Even those of us that hated it were playing it. I played it with my kids. I played it with my adult friends who were male and had reputations to uphold and stuff. I made bells, more bells, made my house bigger and filled it full of crap and can’t tell you why. I turned it back on whenever it was a holiday even if I hadn’t played it in months just to see what was going on in my little town. I got a 3DS for this game, and I’m not the only one I know who did.

Near Misses:

Ni No Kuni: Presentationally perfect and jawdropping. Gameplay and especially story just miss the mark.

Bioshock Infinite: I played it twice because I loved the story so much, but, dear god, for as bad as Bioshock 1’s final escort quest and boss battle were, a specter boss battle and tower defense ending might be worse.

DiveKick: Getting this game to only find out that it only supported online play in the most rudimentary way might be my biggest disappointment in 2013.

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