2013 Game of the Year Awards: Numbers 7 and 6

We now move on to the second day of our countdown of the top ten games of 2013. As usual, today's winners couldn't be any more different, but each manages to celebrate the strengths of its platform in new and wonderfully engaging ways.


#7 – Pokémon X/Y

October | Game Freak | Nintendo 3DS

Growing up, my parents were strict about gaming consoles. None of the old vanguard of consoles ever entered our home — not the NES, nor the SNES, not even the Sega Genesis. No game system ever graced one of our televisions until the GameCube, and even that was purchased two years after its release.

However, realizing their use for child pacification during travel, my folks did buy Game Boys for my brother and me — a pair of used, grey tanks, found cheap after colored variants hit the market. The first games we had were thrift-store purchases like the handhelds themselves -- a fruit-themed Pac-Man clone, games based on the films Jurassic Park and Batman Forever, and a copy of Super Mario Land. They ranged from good to awful, but none of them was ever more than an idle amusement enjoyed as we rode in the back of rental cars along bustling lower-48 freeways.

Oddly, it was the box art for Pokémon Red that made me want the game. Something about the crisp lines on the illustration of a Charizard. Or maybe I thought that I couldn’t get that particular starter in Blue version. In any event, I put it on my Christmas list and received it that December.

That first game was magical. My youthful self did not fully grasp team levelling (that, or he just favored his starter over every other pokémon he caught), so “Dragoon” skyrocketed to level 70 by the end of the game. The final battle against Gary (or "Nose," as I had named him) concluded with my Charizard, completely out of moves, delivering a final Struggle to my opponent’s Blastoise — an act that knocked them out in parallel. I was in shock. There may have been tears in my eyes. I had won.

Though I remained a fan of the series, Pokémon never really gripped me in the years that followed. I lost my copy of Red, but I rushed and exploited my way through Yellow so quickly that I hardly paid attention. I played Fire Red, Pearl, and Black, but never completed any of them — the games were still sugary sweet but just didn't satisfy. The magic I had felt was gone.

Pokémon Y came my way entirely by accident. I had no plans to buy it, no 3DS to play it on, but nevertheless I found a copy thrust into my hands with a loaned handheld the day of release. The sixth generation is still saccharin, and still contains those tropes typical of Pokémon (often associated with Japanese RPGs at large). A child is encouraged by a professor and his mother to set out into the world and have an adventure. The kid battles a criminal "Team," captures a creature of legend, and defeats the best Pokémon trainers in the region. These are all standard components of the series, though X/Y executes them as well as (if not better than) any of its predecessors. But that's not why these latest entries in the series stand out.

As game visuals improve, there’re fewer and fewer gaps for our brains to fill in. I can think of a dozen times that I went back to play a childhood favorite only to find that its visuals actively held me back from the immersion I had felt years before — an experience I'm sure many others have had. So while Pokémon X and Y are exemplary in their own right, the secret sauce of Pokémon’s sixth generation is adjusting for graphical inflation, compensating for the ravages of time and bloom effects on our feelings of nostalgia. The leap to 3D lets us see the world, the battles, and, most importantly, our pocket companions themselves like we always imagined them: living, breathing, full of color and personality. It’s a magic trick, if you'll pardon the pun. Where imagination used to compensate for visuals, Game Freak used visuals to fill in the gaps for our imagination and managed to create magic in the series once more. Clarke’s third law comes to mind.

I’m not sure where Pokémon is going to go from here. Maybe I’ll have to sit the series out for a few more years until I can be properly wow-ed again. But for now, I’m just going to savor the feeling of being a kid again, bright-eyed and enraptured by what might be the best of all possible worlds.

— Spencer Tordoff


#6 – Device 6

October | Simogo | iOS

If there's one theme that stood out to me in the games I played throughout 2013, it's exploring the nature of the relationship between the player and a game. The notion of agency has been a popular theme in games for quite some time — BioShock is a notorious example — but this year I played several games that challenged me to reconsider my understanding of what it means to play a game — to play a role in helping a story unfold.

In form and function, Device 6 is singularly successful in uniting the act of play with the art of telling a story. Words and images compose a landscape for the player to navigate as you guide your protagonist, Anna, through a surreal series of challenges. While the puzzles themselves aren't exceptional, they're finely tuned to fit with the scenario and keep the player engaged in understanding the overarching narrative taking place.

Few games would dare yank the player away from their hard-won suspension of disbelief by forcing them to confront their culpability in seeing a story through to the end. Device 6 does this in a swift and brilliant motion, retroactively transforming the events of the game in one last flourish and leaving the player with lingering questions about autonomy, choice and the nature of storytelling.

I'm still waiting for my free doll to show up in the mail, though.

— Nick Cummings