Honorable mention: I would include Sid Meier's Civilization V: Brave New World on this list, but it's an expansion pack, not a full standalone game. I certainly played it enough this year to warrant a mention. My review of the game is here.
5. Metro: Last Light
A sequel to the cult favorite Metro 2033, Ukrainian studio 4A Games made Metro: Last Light in terrible working conditions imposed by soon-to-fold publisher THQ. The game's entire budget was less than some other first-person shooters get for cutscenes. It represents a dying breed in this industry: the AA game. Indie games are blooming and multimillion-dollar blockbusters will always sell, but this middle ground is something that may not exist in a decade's time.
Metro: Last Light depicts post-apocalyptic Moscow with a grim melancholy that could only come from an Eastern European developer. But there's a twisted sense of hope: walking through the subterranean Metro stations which have become Muscovites' home, you overhear all sorts of quirky conversations between characters... and a full 15-minute variety show at the underground Bolshoi that you can walk right past or sit down and watch. Read my full review of the game here.
4. The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable would be higher on this list, but I already fawned about it enough in 2012. This game was originally a mod for Half-Life 2, and this year finally got a standalone HD remake. If you played the original, you know what to expect, but it's bigger and better. If you're new to Stanley, do yourself a favor and go buy it now. It's a game that's best not to know anything about before playing--it's entirely about deconstructing the nature of narrative in video games and the concept of player choice. Hint: you'll want to play through the short game more than once if you want to see everything there is to see. The Stanley Parable is $15 on Steam, although if you can catch the end of the Steam Winter Sale you can get it for a bit cheaper.
3. Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Nintendo's 3DS had by far the best 2013 of any console, handheld or otherwise. Fire Emblem: Awakening, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Pokémon X/Y, the list goes on and on. But honestly, the game I enjoyed the most was Animal Crossing. No challenge, no fighting, no winning or losing, just fun times as the mayor of a cute village populated by animals. There's a zen garden-like quality to playing this game, planting flowers and fishing for squid. The game isn't made for playing in hours-long binges, instead playing best in short 30-minute sessions every day. Animal Crossing has a clever sense of humor, and its family friendly appeal makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
2. Gone Home
I've written about Gone Home before. It's a game that will appeal to people who don't even like video games. You play as a girl coming home from a semester studying abroad to find her family is gone, and her Oregon home is deserted. You spend the entire game simply exploring the empty home trying to piece together what happened. There's a creepy haunted house vibe to it all, but without the actual horror part. Gone Home is a poignant commentary on family relationships, homosexuality, and '90s culture. It's $20 on Steam and on the game's own website, although if you can catch the end of the winter sale on either website, you can get it for $10.
1. Papers, Please
I've written about Papers, Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller before. As you can see from the screenshot above, it doesn't quite have the graphical fidelity of any of the other games on this list. Papers, Please looks and plays like an early '90s point-and-click game, and it works beautifully. You work as an immigration officer for a fictional Soviet Bloc country, processing people across the border, approving and denying visas. It's all about paperwork. Incredibly boring. But the rules and regulations change, and people will try to tell you why you should let them through without correct documentation.
Papers, Please is a look into the banality of evil, the moral shades of gray that come from a bloated bureaucracy. You want to let the old woman without a visa who's lost her daughter across the border, but you also want to put food on the table for your own family at home. Papers, Please is about a fake Soviet country, but it's more relevant than ever for Americans today. It's $10 through its own website as well as all the major digital retailers, although if you buy it in the next couple days you can get it cheaper on winter sales.
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