State Of Decay (PC, Xbox 360)

Undead Labs

I think the overwhelming demand for the zombie genre is driven by a sort of ideal picture people have in their heads of what that kind of experience would be like. It's the romanticism of the post-apocalypse generally, survivalism, going back to basics, living off the grid, homesteading, having to set up your one little camp that comprises your entire world and it's yours to own and protect. And then also it's the visceral appeal of a fiction where you get to kill a lot of people, and it's justified-- they're not really even people anymore, they're human-shaped but you have no choice BUT to kill them, because they have endless hunger and what better excuse to kill someone than self defense, to keep them from EATING you? The zombie apocalypse is the perfect excuse to revert to our most basic tribal instincts. And that has its appeal.

But I don't think there's been much that has actually delivered on this promise in a real, functional, robust way that lives up to all those expectations people have in their heads. Dead Rising gave you the "mow through massive swaths of the undead" thing. The Walking Dead told a great, human story set within that frame. Day Z might come closest, experientially. But still, at least for me, the constant player-killing X factor of other hostile players at the heart of that game makes it something else than a pure fulfillment of that iconic zombie survivalism fantasy. Maybe the chaos and danger from other humans is more realistic in a way-- but it's not what I think drove the fascination with zombies in the first place.

Which is why State of Decay was a revelation for me. It is, finally, the fully systematized realization of that world we collectively imagine after the zombie apocalypse. It's a big, open depiction of a city and its farmland and suburbs after the outbreak. You build a safehouse. You scavenge supplies to reinforce it. You recruit survivors and give them jobs. You train your people in combat and support skills. You scout new territory, drive out the infected, claim it for your own, fortify it, explore some more. You claw back from extinction. You survive. Very little of State of Decay is pre-scripted-- there are missions, GTA-like, but most of the survivors you'll recruit and the placement of zombies and stashes and important items are all procedurally determined. It's a clockwork world that finally, finally says "here, that zombie thing you've been picturing-that desperate world you imagine - we'll give it to you. Just for you, to survive in. Good luck." State of Decay is all game. And it's my goty.

Steve Gaynor

The Last Of Us (PS3)

Naughty Dog

A game ends up on a GOTY list for a lot of reasons. It seems like in the video game press, one of the reasons games like TLOU, Tomb Raider, and most egregiously BioShock: Infinite end up as "the year's best" is habit. We expect these games to be the best so we are to forgive them their transgressions. We've been TOLD, either through the industry's PR mechanism or just through osmosis that these are the best games being made by the best game makers in the industry. We've been trained to ignore their narratively blind combat elements; their muddled and abandoned themes; their completely predictable character set. I think TLOU suffers from all of these issues but I'm putting it on my list because of one thirty second chunk of the game. The very end.

If you're worried about spoilers than this GOTY write up ends here for you. I really struggled to finish The Last of Us because I was tired of murdering people. In the end, the game justifies (not really successfully; there should be a shorthand piece of jargon for games that put the mirror up to the player's face after engaging the game's only system to kill kill kill only to imply that it is the player who is the monster) one last super-human rampage by turning the tables and blending from Joel's to Ellie's perspective -- we at first believe that Joel (in a cutscene, of course) might've left Ellie behind. That he didn't murder (relatively) innocent people out of a selfish desire to stick with her til the end. But in a quiet car ride it's revealed that no, he took Ellie with him and killed the last person who could've stopped him (a woman, herself trying to save humanity). It's when walking down a road and over terrain, as Ellie, with Joel just ahead of you talking about what a beautiful morning it is, that the game succeeds. You feel something wrong because you were the perpetrator of murder and kidnapping. It's a parallel emotion to Ellie who is intuiting that maybe things aren't quite right. The closing lines of the game "promise me you were telling the truth," and Joel's beautifully selfish lie "I promise," and the game closing on "OK," are gutsy and just plain RIGHT. Neil Druckmann and Naughty Dog at large didn't cave to the pressure to be cute or clever or bombastic -- they just picked the right ending and put it in the game.

Sean Vanaman

Spelunky (Windows, Xbox 360, PS Vita)


As I write these words, I am waiting for a large video file to encode into a smaller video file. I am doing this because I am out of space on the hard drive partition available to me. I used up all available space on the partition recording the video, but I need more space immediately--so I can continue recording the video.

The full video capture, yet to be completed, is gameplay footage of my Spelunky Daily Challenge for December 25, 2013. Christmas Day. The game is paused while I free up this space on my hard drive. It is currently 11:51 PM on Christmas Eve, and I am waiting for a video to finish encoding so I can continue to document this Spelunky Daily Challenge.

I'm not going to explain what Spelunky is. You've either already played it, or you've seen one of my Challenges, or you've heard me talk about it on Idle Thumbs, or you have access to Google.

I am playing this particular challenge on a Mac laptop running Windows on an insufficiently-sized hard drive partition--the version of Spelunky with the Daily Challenge is not available for Mac OS--and I'm using the laptop's keyboard rather than a console controller. I am very bad at using the keyboard to control this game. And for reasons unclear to me, the game has been seeing uncharacteristic sporadic framerate loss on my Mac, adding yet another dimension of chaos and unfamiliarity to the experience.

I am doing this because I do not want to lose my unbroken streak of what will, upon my next in-game death, amount to 100 straight Spelunky Daily Challenges, every one of which has been filmed and uploaded to YouTube, played live via stream, or both. My first daily challenge was on September 17th, 2013, and I haven't missed a day since.

All of this, tonight, comes roughly 10 hours after participating in my first real car accident--swapping insurance cards and everything--which occurred near the beginning of a 500-mile drive from San Francisco, California to San Diego, California. It's been quite a day. I'm fine. When I arrived, I played the Spelunky Daily Challenge.

On its own merits, Spelunky is one of the most complex and deep platformers ever constructed, and certainly also among the finest examples in any genre of marrying such complexity and depth with near-baffling elegance and concision. On an individual level, each of its world systems and player mechanics is fairly simple; but in concert they produce an impossibly enormous array of puzzles, Rube Goldberg hazards, strategic options, and player paths.

But with the Daily Challenge, Spelunky is transcendent. Every 24 hours, each Spelunky player on Earth is given a single chance to play an identically-generated world--the only way to directly compare the performance of two players. This is a game unto itself, and for me it often feels like the only version of the game that exists. In my life, I mean. Knowing I have one and only one shot at the same world everyone else is playing has upped my game considerably; but it has also forced me to accept failure, as in my ongoing two-week streak of early losses, with greater grace.

It's nothing to be particularly proud of, but the Challenge has become an inviolable ritual for me over the last several months. It is rare now that I ever play more than a single round of Spelunky in one day, and unthinkable that I would play fewer.

Of course, I've said almost nothing about the substance of the game itself. There's just too much to say. For example, here’s game designer Doug Wilson's exhaustive dissection of the stupefying level of skill and performance that went into a recent major Spelunky player accomplishment.

If you do want to jump in, stick with it a little longer than you think you have the patience for. It asks more of its players than most games do, but it's worth it.

Chris Remo

Eldritch (PC)

David Pittman, Minor Key Games

A wise man once taught me of a very useful conceptual framework, one that defines how the identities of multiple pieces of media can overlay and juxtapose to create an entirely new experience. He termed this way of thinking as "Meets Meets Meets." I'll never forget him. He was famous.

Let's play a round of this vaunted thought experiment now.

Spelunky Meets Minecraft Meets Lovecraft...

That's Eldritch!

In a lot of ways, Eldritch is the Rogue-Like-Like for me. For one, I'm a baby. And Eldritch isn't all that hard. Once you get your head around how it works, it's pretty straightforward to zip around the first world unscathed, gearing yourself up heavily for the remainder. Stash boxes in the levels allow you to bank coins in case you die. You can buy an item that lets you revive in place for a nominal fee. You can still totally get sloppy and biff hard, but the game isn't as treacherously perilous as some of its contemporaries. Which, as a baby, I enjoy.

But difficulty aside, Eldritch also plays to a number of my personal interests -- it's a realtime first-person game influenced heavily by immersive sims like Thief and BioShock, which maybe shouldn't be too surprising as Eldritch is a one-man production created by David Pittman, who is a programmer that I worked with on BioShock 2. His influences show strongly, and appeal to me in ways that a lot of Rogue-Like-Like-Likes don't. Eldritch is a compelling, accessible, surprising take on a number of well-worn concepts, and it's more than worth your time.

Steve Gaynor

Candy Box (Web)


We’re in something of a golden era, especially among small- to mid-scale games, when it comes to exciting explorations of new tonal spaces, diverse subject matter, and sophistication in storytelling and world-building. It’s a great time for games!

Of course, in addition to that kind of startling progress and encouraging maturity, there’s still something to be said for pure novelty at the most basic, raw, and joyful level. No game better exemplified that this year than the utterly charming Candy Box, a browser based ASCII game created in two months by a 19-year old student who goes by the name "Aniwey."

When you visit the Candy Box website, you are presented with nothing more than than a cryptic rising count of how many “candies” you possess, as well as a button offering the option to eat all your candies. As the candy count rises over time, additional interface options appear. Now you can throw some candies on the ground. Now you can buy a lollipop. What does any of this mean? The game doesn’t want to tell you.

The best possible way to play Candy Box is to know as little as possible about it. As a culture, we’re overly obsessed with “spoilers,” even though research suggests that knowing plot elements in advance rarely has a negative impact on our enjoyment of a story–and in many cases actually enhances it.

But Candy Box is something else. There’s no plot to spoil. The game is essentially nothing BUT discovery, novelty, and surprise. Eventually, it becomes a video game in the sense that we generally understand them, with a rule system comprehensible to the player and able to be mastered; but right up until that point (and even frequently past it), the game takes utter delight time and time again in presenting new concepts, mechanics, and characters in clever and silly ways. The design space is as far from coherent as can be–this game would probably be considered illegal if modern design conventions were enforced by law.

It’s almost entirely style over substance. Games arguably have far too much of that as it is. But the most egregious offenders in that realm are slick and cynical affairs–paint-by-numbers military shooters, annualized franchise grabs playtested to diamond-cut precision, cash-extracting Technicolor feedback loops. Candy Box shares more than a few traits with that latter category, but it couldn’t be further from the whole bunch in intention and spirit. (It’s free, for one thing.)

Candy Box feels like a living document of its creator’s increasing mastery of JavaScript–as though every time Aniwey reached another coding milestone, he dug out a bit more room in an obscure corner of the game to show off his new skills. It is full of hidden secrets and mechanical misdirection, and yet it is utterly guileless.

This is a game that is unlikely to have much of an influence on game design at large, although any designer would do well to observe how far its legs take it without a hint of tutorializing or "training." But by its very nature, as a total work, it is largely unreproducable. It’s tough to sequelize or reboot novelty itself.

Aniwey did indeed release a sequel, Candy Box 2, several months later. It’s a blast for Candy Box devotees–I played all the way through–but it necessarily can’t capture the same electrifying feeling we got when someone started passing a link to a weird website around the office, with no introduction or endorsement other than "Play this."

During that initial week of Candy Box fever, we shared our latest experiences, offered smug encouragement when we noticed our coworkers had missed a trick, and congratulated each other when new members joined the ranks of the Candy Box completionists. It was an experience not to have missed.

Chris Remo

The Yawhg (PC)

Emily Carroll, Damian Sommer

It's probably not going to come as a surprise that I don't really care much about playtime or replayability. A game with hearty amounts of both is nice, certainly, but having a unique and compelling gaming experience is so rare that I don't mind if the game lasts for two minutes. If in those minutes I'm transported away from a keyboard or controller and into the heart of a world, story, mechanic or idea, then I'm immediately grateful for the game at hand.

The Yawhg is one of those games. It's a multiplayer choose-your-own adventure game that begins under the premise that in six weeks "The Yawhg is coming." All you know (and all you need to know) is that The Yawhg is probably pretty fucking bad. Akin to the setup of Brendon Chung's "Flotilla," you use this simple framing (that this may be the waning days of your life) to make decisions.

Like many choice-based narrative games, you're always left wondering how far down you could've wandered down other paths (Jake and I might know a little bit about the artifice of such experiences...) and The Yawhg is immensely successful in stoking your imagination about what is possible. In my first play-through (which you can watch in the archive at I felt the need to just return to the bar, week in and week out, with relative disregard for cosmic consequences. You don't walk in The Yawhg, you don't "mash X to drink," you just pick whatever you want to do and then watch what happens, making it more successful as a true role-playing game than most, simply by setting out to do less.

The Yawhg is available from the game's website and can be played with controller or keyboard on PC by up to four players. This is a "get people in a room regardless of whether they like games or not" experience. Read the narration aloud. Drink wine and laugh and argue. There's no game or system to outsmart so everyone can have the same amount of enjoyment and it's that care for all types of players that helps make it one of my favorite experiences of 2013. GOTY choices, in my book.

Sean Vanaman

Republique (iOS)


I have never really found an iOS game that I loved. I get that some are great - I can recognize how they are great in the abstract - but that feeling of LOVE has never been there for me.

But I played Republique on my iPad, and I love it.

It's such a weird beast. The background of the game's director, Ryan Payton, is surreally obvious when playing. He worked for years at Kojima Productions on the Metal Gear Solid series, but clearly has a deep love for great western games as well (before founding indie studio Camouflaj he spent time leading Halo 4.) And so Republique very much feels like the best of MGS's core appeal (compelling stealth mechanics in a richly narrative-driven and cheekily fourth-wall-breaking frame) produced with a western developer's eye toward accessibility and hooky gameplay loops. Even fictionally and aesthetically, the world of Republique feels like a cross between BioShock's Rapture and MGS2's Big Shell. The character designs are straight out of Kojima Productions' military dress uniform style guide, but the fiction itself is a distinctly American view of the modern government surveillance state. It is an interesting game, is what I'm saying.

Above and beyond all that, the game plays incredibly well for all its complexity, which is part of what made me finally fall in love with an iOS game. Very smartly, the designers eschewed direct character control, and created a "one-touch" input system. You play as a hacker viewing the gameworld through security cameras-- when in "Omni" view, tech is overlaid with icons allowing you to jump between cameras, unlock doors, download emails, and distract guards. When in standard mode, one touch directs the story's main character, Hope, to move to cover, pickpocket a guard, or crawl through a vent. It all works seamlessly, and because the player is watching everything through security cameras, control is almost never taken away, even in what would normally be cutscenes. From the very first seconds of the very first story scene I was shifting the camera's view, zooming in, scanning people and jumping between viewpoints all while the characters' dialogue and animations continued. The amount of respect the designers have for the player's attention during these scenes made me really happy-- and the fact that there's no story scene that the player isn't allowed to skip filled me with joy. It's to the game's credit that I never wanted to.

Only episode 1 of Republique is available so far, but it's a weighty introduction of at least a couple hours gameplay. I can't wait for more.

Steve Gaynor