It was a spirited debate that somehow managed to avoid bar fighting with shattered bottles, but the CGM office hashed it out to find out what was our 2013 game of the year. This year was a bit different as guests also participated in the debate in addition to regular staff, and contributors. The result was a bit of a surprise. The discussion was deadlocked between Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us, and with the numbers evenly split, and no way to break to tie, the award is going to both. They are two very different games that are being recognized for very different reasons.
Grand Theft Auto V
GTA 5 is, in many ways, the pinnacle of what a traditional game can be. Rockstar has shown the entire industry what happens to an established franchise when the time is taken to do a sequel right, without watching the clock to make sure it ships in November, EVERYSINGLE NOVEMBER. This is the anti-Call of Duty; a game where the management thinking only about the yearend financial report and the developers are allowed to tweak, iterate and innovate to their hearts’ content until they have a game they are proud of.
GTA 5 takes everything that is familiar about the GTA franchise and makes it bigger and better. A more focused, engaging story, more diverse, likable characters, more vicious satire, a bigger world, more side-quests, refined combat, the ability to switch between characters in a story with more than one protagonist, and a large, detailed world begging for exploration. This isn’t a game that throws its winning formula out the window; it cranks everything up to “11” and shows the entire industry what happens when you make sure you get the basics not just right, but vastly improved. Grand Theft Auto V may be one of our 2013 Games of the Year, but the sheer size and scope of it guarantees that many will be playing it into 2014.
The Last of Us
If GTA 5 is the pinnacle of present game design, The Last of Us shows the future of the medium. This is a game that challenges what the notion of a game is creating a lasting, sobering, unforgettable experience that reaches out far beyond just gamers. The story of Joel and Ellie can stand proudly with the best examples of fiction and cinema, but at the same time it provides a nerve wracking—and often saddening—exploration into a world where humanity is facing the twilight of its existence. The Last of Us is ostensibly a zombie survival story, though in this case, the zombies are humans fallen prey to a new strain of Cordyceps virus that turns them into vicious, sonar-enhanced cannibals. Beyond the zombie trappings is a story of loss, rediscovery and even greater fear of loss that turns into one of the most divisive and moving stories of the year.
This being a Naughty Dog game, there’s a refinement to the controls, the shooting and action setpieces that screams quality from beginning to end. Make no mistake, this is a game that plays as great as it looks. But beyond that, it creates a world and characters that anyone can be pulled into, can enormously about, and go on an emotional, exhausting journey with. The Last of Us joins the ranks of Shadow of the Colossus, Journey and others to go beyond mere gameplay and mechanics to make players ask questions about what it means to be a person, and what kind of choices we’d make. In an industry where the normal convention is to feel only the adrenaline rush of combat and killing people, The Last of Us makes us confront love, both the noble and ugly sides of it. It’s an astonishing accomplishment that simply should not have come out of a top-tier, AAA studio and yet Naughty Dog didn’t just attempt it, they succeeded beyond all expectation.