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Must Plays 2013 (The Last of Us and Gone Home)

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Gone Home

It is hard to find games that opt for simple ideas, in fact most games attempt the opposite, layering on epic worlds and fight-to-the-death stakes to keep players invested. Gone Home strips all these conventions away and leaves you with a simple game that demands nothing from the players but a curiosity to explore an empty house in the middle of the night. While toying with Gone Home’s unembelished premise, players will stumble upon a gorgeous love story that capture teenage angst, high school insecurity, and the naivety of a first love. Most video games last five times as long as Gone Home and cover roughly half of the emotional pay dirt that the game mines from its empty northwestern house on a stormy night.

The most simple thing about Gone Home is also its most brilliant, the game seamlessly weaves puzzles and exploration in an experience that consistently goes back to reinforcing its immersion with intelligent choices. The game doesn’t use achievements or collectibles to try and keep players engaged, it naturally builds an environment that offers players a chance to voyeuristically explore the lives of a family that is going through a rough time. The best part about Gone Home is how, even with such a simple gameplay mechanic, it can still surprise you. The protagonist, Katie, will refuse to read passages about her family’s sex life and falls into character based on predictable player habits. The tricks employed by The Fullbright Company are smart ways to make Gone Home more than a great narrative, they flesh Gone Home into a great game.

Gone Home’s narrative is as deep and complex as players want it to be. People looking to get a full idea of the narrative can dig deeper to find secrets that reveal specific information, but the core of the game is about Katie’s sister Sam and her first girlfriend, Lonnie. Discovering pieces of Sam’s memoirs along the way, players learn the story about Sam’s first meeting of Lonnie, and their days spent hanging around outside of gas stations and playing Street Fighter. As Lonnie and Sam become romantically involved, the game’s sharp writing reminds players about the strange, wonderful discovery of young love, recounting specific moments, such as cuddling in the dark during a sleep over. As Sam becomes more involved with Lonnie, her parents begin to discover her sexual orientation and enter a stage of denial. It all builds to an uneven, though still satisfying conclusion. Gone Home may not have an “Ah-hah!” moment, but that is a testament to its charm and subtlety.

The setting of Gone Home is integral to the game. The massive home, filled with strange stories and creepy discoveries sets the mood for a game that threatens to feel supernatural. It is a line that Gone Home flirts with throughout, but consistently dismisses. It is all meant to set the player off-kilter, some of the early rooms you explore and things you discover add to an atmosphere that begs the player to continue asking questions and exploring their surroundings. The wooded northwestern U.S. backdrop is an intriguing setting, specifically from a music stand point, as the game weaves the punk rock scene into its framework in a smart, yet loving way. The whole of Gone Home’s world is deftly crafted and impressively detailed. From 90’s nostalgia, to the simple needs of a family home, the game creates a world that is wonderfully deep.

Gone Home is an atmosphere game that ignores convention and expectation, allowing players to discover at their own pace. It is concise and specific in the story it is looking to tell, bravely forgoing clichés to give players something more human. The natural curiosity that Gone Home creates, combined with the strength of its storytelling, gives players a reason to keep wandering through an abandoned home, something totally uninteresting and dismissible in the majority of modern games. This is where Gone Home shines, it treats an abandoned home on a stormy night the same way other games lovingly slave over a city or country. This dedication to such a simple and specific idea gives Gone Home the ability to become something more, something that sticks with you long after you have stopped playing it.

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The Last of Us

From the ending of the game’s opening sequence, to the final words spoken of the final cut-scene, The Last of Us tells one of the most powerful and blood curling stories in all of games. Games often like to wrap themselves into nice, neat little packages, but The Last of Us takes its world, its characters, its plot, breaks the whole thing into a million pieces, then dumps it into your lap.  Open to interpretation, unapologetically brutal, and tightly written, the game grabs you and drags you through a series of nasty encounters that is the stuff of nightmares.

While the gameplay in The Last of Us, might be considered a weakness, it feeds into the narrative in an Ouroboros of theme that encapsulates the desperation and violence of a world that is teetering on a dangerous edge. Combining stealth gameplay with third-person shooting mechanics, the game is not a massive departure from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, but introduces some tricks to feel fresh. On top of crafting and character development systems, the game litters supplies and ammo with enough scarcity to offer challenge and demand rationing. While these other aspects are nice flavoring, the true hallmark of the gameplay is its brutality. Many games drench their worlds in blood for the sake of it, but The Last of Us feels appropriately violent and disturbingly dismissive of its nastiness.

The world where all of this violence takes place in is a brilliant mix of destruction and life. Populated with the brilliantly designed clickers and humans who have lived too long on the edge, The Last of Us is often a place coated in dreary hues of brown and grey, smeared with dirt and rubble. This commitment to the game’s hauntingly corroded atmosphere allows for naturally beautiful moments to hold your attention. The vibrant green foliage and the gorgeous white snow stand out when so much is swirled in destruction, new life refreshes you and reminds you of why the narrative is so important. Naughty Dog is no stranger to making beautiful games, but The Last of Us does not feel as bombastic in its gorgeous nature, it subtly slips its breath taking moments into the world, understatedly creating a seemingly gorgeous dynamic.

Where The Last of Us really hits home is with its home-run narrative. The action-adventure genre is ripe for newcomers, and cinematic third-person gameplay is starting to gain significant traction, yielding competition in a category Naughty Dog has long dominated. The Last of Us, with its amazing narrative stands clearly above all other recent attempts, demonstrating Naughty Dog’s understanding of the genre with such talent they could be accused of showing off. Telling the story of a smuggler named Joel, who has his humanity returned by an unassuming little girl could be rote and lame, but Naughty Dog handles it with such nimble storytelling and such smart writing that they turn it into one of the greatest stories games have told. This is accented with the impressive motion capture technology and acting that Naughty Dog is famous for. Performances by Tory Baker, Ashley Johnson, and Nolan North are some of the finest ever to grace your PlayStation and strike such a human chord, they demand attention for their work.

The Last of Us is all about the simple things, the attention to detail exemplified by its title screen. In a world where buildings become dilapidated monuments of the past, covered in cracked paint and held by broken structures, Naughty Dog strives to capture this in every location. It is this corrosive theme that is offset by the gorgeous rendering of new life and creation. The art, the narrative, the gameplay, the characters, it all circles back to the title, “The Last of Us”, discovering and toying with the idea of what it means to be the last of humanity, what humanity means, and how these core concepts of survival and human well-being drive us to the edge when pushed to extremes. The Last of Us is the most thematically sound game of the year, all revolving around core concepts that come through in every aspect. The Last of Us is a game that stands apart from all others, with brave decisions, intelligent design choices, and creative storytelling. It is the best game I played in 2013.

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