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My favorite games of the generation were huge blockbusters like Mass Effect 2, Skyrim and Uncharted 2. This year, though, was different. This year most of the games that caught my eye were small titles that cost $15 or less.

I'm not one of those critics that think consoles or AAA games are doomed. I already own next-gen consoles and I think that they're smart investments. There's always going to be place for game systems that offer a streamlined experience to players that don't want to swap out video cards or install a new motherboard. Likewise, there's always going to be a desire for blockbuster games that exceed our expectations for size or production quality.

At the same time, we can't forget about the little games. They might not have the massive marketing budgets or the photorealistic graphics of the big guys but they're more agile. These games can take the risks that that the AAA titles can't, pushing the boundaries for gameplay or story-telling. They don't have the millions of confirmed fans to satisfy every year; they strike out in new directions and hope there are gamers willing to follow them.

I'm not trying to be a video game hipster with this list. I liked a lot of big-budget games that launched this year, such as Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite. These five games are the ones that are really going to stick with me beyond this year.

Guacamelee
Guacamelee
The cheerful Mexican music and colorful characters might make you think Guacamelee is a kid-friendly, easy-going adventure but it's anything but. I'm not sure I've ever sworn at a game as much as I've sworn at this one. I greet every new challenge with an "Are you fucking kidding me?" or "Jesus, leave me alone you motherfuckers."

Guacamelee invites comparison to Metroid due to its open-ended 2D structure but after an hour, the similarities are harder to spot. The battles are frantic and taxing, constantly introducing new hurdles. This isn't the sort of game where you can button-mash your way to victory. You're going to face packs of enemies with energy shields that are split across two dimensions. Oh yeah, and some of them blow up if you don't kill them quickly enough. If you're going to make it out alive, you need to well-acquainted with every move in your repertoire.

The platforming is just as demanding, if not more so. After giving you a few stock moves like a double jump or wall jump, you might think you've got the hang of things. You're wrong. The game will soon start asking you to wall jump, double jump, wall jump, double jump, wall jump, double jump, dimension switch, uppercut to get to ledges. The emotional arcs of the combat and platforming are similar: you spend five minutes feeling like a thumbless mouth-breather, take a break to throw your controller, swear to yourself while retrieving the controller, and then sit back down to keep playing. Then you finally nail it and feel as powerful as a masked Mexican wrestler with magic powers.

Other games demand very little of you. Guacamelee, however, wants you to be better than you are. It adds more and more weight to your shoulders, asks you to run faster and faster, and tells you to keep your knees up while you're doing it. They'll make a luchador out of you yet.


Papers, Please
Papers, Please
Video games have lied to us. For years, games made us believe that soldiers and assassins have the most exciting lives. Papers, Please exposes their deception. It showed me that blowing off a terrorist's head or backstabbing a knight pales in comparison to stamping a passport.

Okay, being an immigration officer in a totalitarian state to support a hungry family would be terrible. In Papers, Please, though, it's downright thrilling. You pore over the details of every passport, adhering to a list of changing rules to ensure that you're properly vetting each immigrant. In time you'll have to take more drastic measures like checking their fingerprints or scanning their bodies.

These investigations aren't conducted at a leisurely pace. The more immigrants you properly process per day, the more money you'll bring home for your family. As the workday winds to a close, your eyes will dart back and forth between the clock and the pile of documents in front of you. Will you risk letting an immigrant through without a thorough inspection in order to make your quota?

While you're confined to a booth for the whole game, this turns out to be a great vantage point for this Cold War era conflict. Your power to admit or deny immigrants makes you valuable not only to the government but also rebels and criminals. Everyone wants your help as they try to victimize each other. It's up to you to chart your own course through their conflicts and ensure that there's food on the table back at home.

I understand if you're still skeptical. Papers, Please is a fun game cloaked with retro graphics and a very boring-sounding premise. Make no mistake, though: the folks at the Arstotzka immigration department are having a blast.


Dota 2
Dota 2
I never expected I'd actually play Dota 2. I had heard a bit about how competitive and heated MOBA matches could be and decided that it wasn't my scene. Dota 2 sat in my Steam library for months until I finally gave it a whirl. As it turned out, I didn't hate it. I played it more than any other game this year.

Yes, it's a competitive game with a steep learning curve. Valve did everything they could to ease players into the fray. The series of tutorial missions introduce you to the basic mechanics and then throw you in a single lane against an A.I. opponent. From there, you move onto a full match with bots, a co-op match with other players against A.I., and eventually battle against other players with a limited pool of Heroes. Your first competitive games might still be rough but you're not just going to be a free kill. Valve sets you on the path to become better.

While I learned the ropes, I had a blast too. Dota 2 seems really simple at first - push your lane, smash towers, and destroy the enemy's Ancient. While the finish line is always in the same place, there are so many ways to get there. There's over a hundred different Heroes to choose from, none of which are behind a paywall. Learning each Hero's abilities and how they fit into the battle is a game in of itself. The dozens of in-game items you can buy throughout the battle expand the possibilities even further. Wielding Black King Bar or Manta Style will make for two very different matches. There's no "right" way to play and figuring out your particular path to victory is a gratifying, if time-consuming, experience.

Dota 2 is intimidating as hell. You're pitted against a die-hard player base in a game that's too vast and variable to ever completely master. Dota 2 was able to convince me to accept this challenge, though. I'm glad I did.


The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable
“If Last of Us isn’t on this list, I’m going to lose my shit,” the reader thought to themselves. “It has mushroom zombies and characters that speak in complete sentences. Only total domination of all Game of the Year lists will suffice.”

Suddenly the reader noticed that his thoughts were being broadcast on the very article he was reading. That wasn’t how Game of the Year lists were supposed to work. The author was supposed to explain what titles they enjoyed, and the readers who liked other games were supposed to attack their taste. The system worked so well! The reader hoped and dreamed that everything would return to normal.

If the past two paragraphs bored or annoyed you, you probably won’t like Stanley Parable. The game breaks the fourth wall more often than a Community episode guest­starring Deadpool. Stanley’s trip through his abandoned office seems like a simple adventure game at first but transforms into an examination of game design and the illusion of player freedom. This is a game that stares at itself in the mirror.

The key character in this game isn’t Stanley but the genteel British narrator. He’s carefully built a game for you and wants nothing more than for you to follow his instructions and get your happy ending. If you try to stray from his path, though, he’ll let you know just how disappointed he is. He may even take drastic actions to put you in your place. How dare you question his authority? Who do you think you are?

Parable might disappoint you if you were hoping for a more straightforward journey. However, if you’re the sort of person who enjoys watching bad movies just to dissect them or wonders why video game villains fill their bases with explosive barrels, you’ll find Stanley Parable to be a feast of self-­aware comedy.


State of Decay
State of Decay
There are many games depicting the zombie apocalypse but few have the ambition and scale of State of Decay. You’re not a lone character fighting legions of zombies. You’re leading an entire community of survivors in Trumbull Valley and doing all the dirty work necessary to keep this group alive.

Killing zombies certainly doesn’t help your survival chances but it’s only one of many responsibilities. You’ll also have to make supply runs, recruit other survivors and settle disputes within your group. While there’s a scripted story going on, too, your personal struggle to manage all of these randomly generated crises is the real tale.

State of Decay is an apt title. You never conquer the zombie apocalypse ­ you merely keep it at bay. Your supplies are a constant concern? survivors will consume them even when you’re out of the game. At any moment, your community could be dealt a devastating blow. Your resident doctor could catch the infection and need to be put down. The best marksman in your group might be attacked on a supply run. If you can’t save them, they’re gone for good. As strong as your community might become, it’s always in danger.

It’s unfortunate that the game’s Breakdown DLC costs money. This mode is the definitive State of Decay experience, allowing players to build their community until they’ve exhausted the valley’s supplies and then start over from scratch with scarcer resources and harder zombies. Breakdown drives home the true horror of the zombie apocalypse: it’s a marathon, not a race, and eventually you’re going to lose.
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