Welcome To The New Age: 2013′s Biggest Disappointments
Games That Pushed the Envelope (Not At All)
Remember how exciting 2013 seemed at the end of 2012? It looked to be a year of phenomenal promise in the triple-A space. New titles from Naughty Dog, Irrational Games, Rockstar; a new SimCity, a new Grand Theft Auto, a new BioShock, and more. It looked like triple-A was finally going to grow up a bit, like we would be inundated with thinking-player’s games from respected studios.
Over the course of the year, the supposed gloss of AAA games merely reflected the glow of the leaner, more diverse and (frankly) more creative indie space. The year of 2013 was another huge one for indies, but triple-A was a lackluster let-down as the industry approached the end of the seventh console generation with more of the same in terms of big titles. Overall, even the most promising games wound up being dull and safe in their own ways.
First came BioShock Infinite, and though it was bright and shiny and, at first, appeared to explore deep concepts, some time spent with the game revealed that it was mainly 2008 shooting stapled to 2013 quantum mechanics nonsense posing as story. Elizabeth was an exciting take on an AI character, but it quickly became apparent that she was invulnerable, which was the secret to keeping her from someone you had to babysit. Even now that ending still doesn’t make a ton of sense, and what at first looked like informed political commentary in the form of a game just turned out to be set dressing spray painted with the words “racism is bad (but we’re not really making a statement here).”
After that was The Last of Us, which, to its credit, contains some of the best acting and character writing yet seen in a game. Full stop. Performances are uniformly phenomenal, as is the relationship between its protagonist characters. And the ending is wrenching.
But it wouldn’t be 2013 without falling back on lazy conventions, and so it is that the rest of the game is kinda … eh. Any fan of the zombie genre knew each and every step the story would take from beginning to end. Any fan of Naughty Dog instantly recognized the company’s trademark “think of an environment you’d like to see in a game before figuring out how it would even serve the story” mentality. And any fan of stories that use violence to advance a greater message was left with a sucking sensation where their enthusiasm used to be, as TLOU’s comically enormous body count turned the game from a series of tense sneak-sessions into a slog through yet another group of idiot “hunters.”
Beyond: Two Souls came next. The latest title from Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream, this pretentious mess sports an all-star cast of Hollywood actors, but puts them to work in a story that prompts deep questions — like, you know, what the hell it was even about. (Seriously, David Cage, what the hell was it about?) It also included a shower scene of naked Ellen Page (you couldn’t see her all nakey in-game, but, as it was soon discovered, all the code made it possible to hack) for literally no reason.
The most hotly anticipated and, subsequently, the most successful game of 2013 was, of course, Grand Theft Auto V. Greeted with universal acclaim, it unfortunately felt like it was stuck about five years in the past, which might just be the case. Satirical elements often felt as out of touch as someone making a “Rap music? More like crap music amirite?” joke in 1992, and its volley of pop culture jokes1 date it before you’re even done playing. Factor in a total lack of developed female characters and it feels like every moment of brilliance is cockblocked by a moment of willful stupidity.
Oh, remember that new SimCity title? It set a particularly bad precedent for the year by being only the first of several online-focused games released to the public completely broken. Developer Maxis and publisher Electronic Arts insisted it needed to be online-only — a claim later proven to be, ahem, not entirely honest — then massacred the launch by releasing a game that didn’t work then, didn’t really work after patches, and to this day is still riddled with problems.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, EA decided to do it again nine months later with Battlefield 4, a game that at least wasn’t forced to be online-only, but was released effectively broken. (See also Total War: Rome II, in which Sega proved it could be every bit as bad about this as EA. At least Creative Assembly managed to patch up Rome II, though.)
I’d like to say that this parade of mediocrity and failure was met with an appropriately underwhelmed response, but what makes this even worse is that we were all suckers in 2013. Conditioned like Pavlov’s dog to drool whenever the bell rings — or in this case, the loading screen loads — players lapped up almost everything AAA publishers vomited out. Even SimCity, a game everyone knew nearly a year in advance would be released sans any of what are universally considered the core elements of the experience, was a hit.
Which means we have only ourselves to blame when developers start listing “will function as advertised the day it launches” as a selling point on the box.
1) Wow, iFruit! Ha, selfies! What timely. So brilliant. Wow. Oh, and that’s me making fun of hip jokes that are already played out, with special guest Doge.