2013 was a strong year in both console and PC games, with games flying fast and frequently from both AAA and indie studios. We saw the end of one console generation and the beginning of another, along with the announcement of the expansion of PC gaming into the living room with full force. Oh, and a complete overload of the timesink-level games I love came out, too. While there were many contenders, it just didn't get better than these.
Grand strategy is never flashy. It's never high production value. It's too down and dirty, too gritty, much too concerned with numbers and sheets of numbers and values and modifiers, and is that additive or multiplicative? Europa Universalis IV was not flashy. It was pretty, sure, far prettier than anything else out there in its genre, but not flashy. It is very much a Strategy Fan's Strategy game. It also just happens to be a sandbox (buzzword!) set in my favorite period of history, in a franchise renowned for its historicity. It's easy to criticize this game as iterative, but it's impossible to avoid iteration when you do nothing but add value with each release. I've sunk hundreds of hours into Europa, and I'll sink in hundreds more.
You often get games with good gameplay. Or games with good level design. Or games with good writing. Or games with good acting. You rarely get a game with all of them. The writing, acting, and plotting in The Last of Us are at the pinnacle of what games can do right now. The gameplay is enjoyable, hair raising, thrilling, and while it's not the most innovative, it seals this into what should be regarded as the culmination of the seventh generation of videogames.
3. Papers, Please
I am always for taking games into strange directions that simulate weird, irrational situations. Papers, Please gives me the greatest pleasure. Boring mechanics, drab visuals, and a genuinely alienating premise combine to give one of the most fascinating, immersive games I played this year. Where The Last of Us had me on the edge of my seat, Papers caused genuine shifts in my mood. It affected me the way a good documentary, or striking collection of art, can. It's not a feeling I get to carry away from a videogame too often, but I'm glad to have gotten to feel it this year.
The finest cooperative release of the year, hands down. It shines in that it seems to scale to any given players' skill level. If you're talented but your friend isn't, great, you can carry the team to victory. If you're all great at platformers, then you can compete for scores and bash each other into oblivion. As a solo offering, it's easily as strong as any of the other really good platformers in what has been a golden year for platformers. The combination of the two? It's a damn fine party game, solo game, and the best Mario since the original Mario Galaxy.
5. Path of Exile
Free games come along constantly these days. Diablo II has been a game I go back to, let's say, yearly since its release. Enter Path of Exile. Improving on the hack-and-slash formula by removing obnoxious elements like collecting gold or grinding hard for certain items, and adding the ranked tournament format of games like Call of Duty and League of Legends has allowed PoE to steal my heart from Diablo II, and I'm okay with that. Did I mention it's free? It's free. Go play it.
In the end, I regret that games like The Stanley Parable and XCOM: Enemy Within didn't make my list, but they nearly deserved to. In the end, it came down to what kept me coming back again and again over the vast majority of other releases that also demanded tens of hours of my time. That was the best measure of my favorites for 2013.