#5 (Tie): Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons/Puppeteer – I always like to give the number five spot to a pair of games that share a specific theme or genre and represent it exceptionally well. This year that honor goes to two games where children journey through fantastic lands, braving danger to save those in need. Admittedly that’s the only commonality between the two; Brothers is a serious, often somber tale told without words, while Puppeteer is a lighthearted comedy with an abundance of dialogue. They share this position because both are able to elicit the emotions they’re trying to attain (drama and humor, respectively) with strong narratives and compelling characters. They further demonstrate how games are evolving as an art form, and deserve to be praised for that.

#4: Papers, Please – One of the surprising breakout hits of 2013, Papers, Please took one of the most prosaic, mind-numbingly dull jobs imaginable and turned it into an engaging test of your wits and morality. The new regulations issued by the government on a daily basis force you to greatly step up your game so you can maximize your daily wages by correctly processing as many people as possible during each work shift. Since your pay is determined by how many people are correctly authorized or rejected balancing the well-being of your family with the plights of several immigrants who lack the proper documentation adds a new dynamic to standard moral-choice systems as one of the rare cases where there’s rarely a right answer, or if there is, it’s hard to do because of how it will affect you. At a time when the cry of “national security” leads the government to dehumanize people and regard us all as potential criminals, games like this offer a look at how far such a mentality can take us, and how to fight against it.

 #3 (Tie):  BioShock Infinite/Metro: Last Light – While the annual installments of mediocre hyper-masculine militarism from the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises have tainted the genre in the public’s eye, there are still first person shooters that are working to break free of this guilt by association with intelligent, thought-provoking stories and concepts, two of the best examples seen this year. BioShock Infinite and Metro: Last Light have a number of similarities between them: corrupt societies that breed animosity and the seeds of rebellion, demonstrating how people can easily become monsters when all they know is the violence that surrounds them, and a chance for protagonists with blood-stained pasts (Booker DeWitt and Artyom) to find redemption for their sins. I personally found Infinite had the better storyline, characters and presentation while, Last Light had the stronger atmosphere, though both had impressive mechanics to distinguish themselves (Sky-hooks and a very helpful AI partner that never hindered you in the former, impressive stealth and survival elements in the latter.) Here’s hoping that future FPS titles will draw more inspiration from these games instead of the ever-present modern warfare drivel.

#2: The Last of Us – My apathy towards post-apocalyptic fiction has waned in recent years thanks to media that provides a deep connection to its characters and their struggle to survive in a world gone to hell: Fragile Dreams, The Road, The Walking Dead, and the aforementioned Metro series, just to name a few. Naughty Dog has further chiseled away at my bias with The Last of Us. Despite the bleak, almost nihilistic atmosphere it creates, there are still genuine moments of hope where you envision a positive outcome not just for the characters you’re controlling, but the entire world of the game. Joel and Ellie have one of the strongest, most dynamic bonds I’ve seen, with both given fully realized character arcs and interactions with other survivors that drastically shape their attitudes; nothing of significance is ignored or forgotten about. It’s incredibly well paced, with scenes flowing from moments of quiet introspection and discussion, to tense progression through a dangerous area where you never know if an infected killer or brutal bandit will ambush  you, to intense action as you fight off attackers, all with a natural progression. Gameplay blends the intense action and gunplay the developer is known for with a strong stealth focus that requires slow, methodical progression through hostile areas, and survival elements which force you to ration weaponry and health restoring items wisely. It’s Naughty Dog’s best release to date, and one of the best games of this past decade.

#1: Grand Theft Auto V – The latest installment of the GTA franchise was quite possibly the most divisive game released this year. Numerous critics accused it of being racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, juvenile, badly-written, even calling it a regression for the video game industry. With all due respect to these critics, while I can see examples of the problems they had during my time playing it… I still think it was awesome. Yes, the humor was weak and occasionally offensive in some areas, yes the flying controls were a pain, but those complaints are overshadowed by the many great moments GTA V offers. Well-realized characters with engaging arcs, a vast, realistic world with so much to offer those willing to explore it thoroughly, a good balance of comedy and drama, greatly improved shooting and driving, massively fun heist missions, and so much more. Finding an open world game more entertaining than this will be a daunting task, because right now, Grand Theft Auto V stands as the pinnacle of the genre.

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