The Head and the Heart, or, My 2013 Game of the Year

Halfway through the year it became pretty clear to me, and probably a bunch of other folks too, that my game of the year was going to be a tug of war between Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.

I know about PowerPoint.

I know about PowerPoint.

There was a pretty solid helping of great games that came out in 2013, but none of them took hold of my thoughts and feelings quiet as forcefully as Bioshock and The Last of Us.

Readers may bemoan my omission of Grand Theft Auto V as a contender for the best game of 2013, but for all of Rockstar Studio’s satirical witticism and over the top gameplay the thin venire of sarcasm draped over every moment of GTAV kept it from reaching the earnest emotional or contemplative heights of Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us. GTAV is a terrific piece of pop art, but it never quite punched me straight in the heart or sent my brain into overdrive.

Those thoughtful and emotive heights were reached in large part due to fantastic acting in both games. You can’t have a discussion of The Last of Us or Bioshock without touching on the acting.

The lead in both games, Troy Baker, has been on fire this year, not only taking on the roles of Joel in The Last of Us and Booker DeWitt in Infinite, but also inheriting the role of the Joker form the legendary Mark Hamill in the Batman game Arkham Origins.

Troy Baker: Father of the Year

Troy Baker: Father of the Year

Joel is an older, ragged southerner. Booker is a veteran of the American Indian Wars working as a detective in the Northeast. They’re very different characters who inhabit very different worlds and yet Baker perfectly inhabits both of them, and through Baker, you the player inhabit Booker and Joel as they move through their respective worlds.

Yet Joel and Booker would be nothing without their respective wards, Ellie and Elizabeth. Both are young women with a unique secret, imprisoned by the constraints of dystopia. Ellie, played by Ashley Johnson, just might hold the key to humanity’s salvation in a post-apocalyptic United States. Elizabeth, played by Courtnee Draper, has super secrete theoretical physics powers, but is trapped in a tower on the floating Americana steampunk theocracy Columbia.

They’re both fully realized characters. They talk to you throughout the game, they wander off and are distracted by the world around them, they thank you, they hate you, they save you and you save them. In a medium that can all too often be reduced to shooting stuff, Elizabeth and Ellie put a very real, very human motivation behind pulling the trigger.

Elizabeth and Ellie are also anchors of realism in these games.

Ellie and chilling in gross mushroom America.

Ellie chilling in gross mushroom America.

The Last of Us takes place in a bleak future where America’s been reduced to a handful of military quarantine zones spread out amongst a vast wasteland of raiders and violence and disease. Oh, and mushroom monsters caused by a human-centric strain of cordyceps which has, for all intents and purposes, obliterated the world.

Bioshock Infinite stretches its imagination much further. Its setting, Columbia, is a city of dirigibles floating about the United States. It’s a haven of perverse Christian and American values and straight up old school racism that also happens to house one or two of the most brilliant minds in physics. Oh, and everybody has the ability to alter their genetic code so that they can shoot fire and electricity and crows from their wrists.

Both Columbia and the cordyceps-ridden U.S. are incredibly fleshed out worlds with dense histories and minute details that make them feel real, but it’s inhabitants like Ellie and Elizabeth that make the hearts of these fantastical worlds beat.

But Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us aren’t the same game, despite my lumping them together in nearly every respect thus far. Bioshock is a first person shooter. The Last of Us is third person. Bioshock takes place in the past. The Last of Us takes place in the future. This and that, so on and so forth. The most important distinction between Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us is that the former is an egg head and the latter wears its heart on its sleeve.

Elizabeth and the racist land of Columbia.

Elizabeth and the racist land of Columbia.

The Bioshock franchise has always been smart. The series’ first offering is just as much a first person shooter as it is an Ayn Rand novel. Bioshock Infinite is no exception. Where the underwater city of Rapture in the original Bioshock was a monument to the dangers of unchecked ambition fostered by philosophy and science, Columbia stands in stark contrast, a monument to unchecked authority fostered by blind patriotism and religious fanaticism.

But beyond its socio-political thesis Infinite soars to even greater academic heights. The conclusion of Bioshock Infinite bridges art and science, delves into the mathematical variables and equations of what a narrative is and questions the very construct of story.

It’s dense and dizzying and confusing and awesome.

On the flipside of that coin, The Last of Us asks us to question our morality and values and whether or not they represent the end-all, be-all spectrum of good and evil or the most convenient means of living safe and happy lives in the here and now.

Those questions aside, however, The Last of Us perhaps most memorably asks us to feel. It asks us to fight and kill for those feelings and at the end of it all the game, whether you agree or not, places a price on individual humanity and personal relationships and makes you pay it.

Bioshock Infinite wants you to play with your brain. The Last of Us wants you to play with your heart.

I’m a heart guy.

The Last of Us was my favorite game of 2013.

They wouldn't be making those stupid faces if they knew they were in the Pony Tricks Game of the Year.

They wouldn’t be making those stupid faces if they knew they were in the Pony Tricks Game of the Year.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t adore Bioshock Infinite. Or GTAV. Or Tomb Raider, or a handful of other games that came out this year. But sitting here in December it’s The Last of Us that continues to resonate with me over six months later.

2013 was a pretty badass year for games and that the medium was so effectively able to wield thought and emotion isn’t just impressive for individual games, it’s exciting for the industry as a whole. As my willpower begins to wear and I get closer and closer to shelling out money for a PS4 in 2014, it won’t be fancy graphics or apps or big name franchises that convince me to finally burn a hole in my wallet, it’ll be word of games that make you think and feel and that get people talking about more than just frame rates. Games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. Are intellect or emotion important to you in gaming?

2. Did you prefer The Last of Us to Bioshock: Infinite, or vice versa? Did you prefer GTA V or another game over both?

3. Am I really going to have to get a PS4 next year?

 

Check out some of the other video game ramblings I partook in this year:

Arkham Origins

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite again

Dead Space 3

Grand Theft Auto V

Injustice: Gods Among Us

LEGO: Marvel Superheroes

The Last of Us

Tomb Raider

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(500) Days of Elizabeth, or, Unlocking the Characterization of Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite is a lot of things; a great game, a fun experience, an indigestible piece of mind candy that will leave your mind dentist hooking and clawing through all the nooks and crannies of your mind teeth until your gums are chum, etc.

It’s an American steampunk fairy tale.

Bawlin.

Bawlin.

You’re cast as Booker Dewitt, who, after what I assume was an early life as a librarian or Barnes & Noble clerk, served in the military at the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre. Fast-forward twenty-some years and Dewitt is a private eye with a steep gambling debt who finds himself in a row boat on a stormy night off the coast of Maine.

Dewitt proves to be a fascinating protagonist well worth investing in. He remains interesting even amongst the fascinating world of the sky-city Columbia. The bastard love child of a Norman Rockwell painting and the World’s Fair, Columbia is ultranationalist, Americana propaganda with a zip code. Which is just an expression. It doesn’t actually have a zip code. Because it’s in the sky.

But Bioshock Infinite isn’t just the tale of a stranger in a strange land with a strange name and a strange hand – Booker finds himself tasked with finding the mysterious young lady Elizabeth, a princess in a tower guarded by an imposing beast like no other.

Upon locating his subject, DeWitt soon discovers that Elizabeth has the ability to open tears, portals between dimensions, and bring objects from other dimensions into her own. Kind of like Portal 2. In fact, if you’ve played Portal 2, don’t even bother with Bioshock because they are essentially identical. Anyway, the point is Elizabeth is quite the powerhouse companion. Also she loves you. She really, really loves you. And she wants to be your best friend and make you happy for the rest of your shared life. Why else would she look at me the way she does with those bulbous blue irises and those uncanny-valley-defying facial expressions?

We were meant to be.

Book attack! Also, I love you.

Book attack! Also, I love you.

Once, Elizabeth was all “I bet you won’t get on that merry-go-round” – and then I did and she was all “damn I can’t believe you got on that merry-go-round, you’re so fresh and so clean.” Not with her voice, but with her eyes, those bulging sapphires that make me feel so alive for the very first time. I can’t deny them. I feel so alive.

This other time, I was at a vending machine buying an upgrade to my Murder of Crows power (a power that lets you unleash flesh eating crows at your enemies, and an upgrade that turns said eaten enemies into crow traps in order to perpetuate the glorious cycle of life a.k.a. the glorious cycle of murder ) and I didn’t have enough money and then Elizabeth was all like “here, I found this” and she gave me money! She could have given it to anyone, or even just kept it herself like a sane person, but she gave it to me so that I could buy more Murder of Crows crow murderers to murder with. Needless to say it was a sublime purchase.

I don’t know about you, but I appreciate a girl who appreciates value.

Another time I was trying to get into a door and there was a really impractical, ill-conceived looking lock on it and I couldn’t get in and then Elizabeth was all “I can do that” and she picked the lock for me and then we went inside and there was all kinds of money and ammo and upgrades and clothes. It was great. I mean, she used five of my lock picks, which don’t exactly grow on trees – but hey! Beggars can’t be choosers. And whether you are a beggar or a chooser Elizabeth will siphon the shit out of your lock picks. But she’s great. Blue irises. Meant to be. America.

In a more exciting instance I was killing some d-bags to death with an RPG, working out some anger over some lock picks I no longer had, and I ran out of RPGs to murder with, much like I’d run out of lock picks to lock pick with. Luckily at that point Elizabeth turned to me and said “here, take this.” Guess what it was. RPGs! And then I was all “Boy, that’s great but I sure wish you had more lock picks. I mean you literally used five of my lock picks. Five lock picks to get into a safe with $200. That’s cool. On an unrelated note, do you know what I can’t get for $200? Five lock picks. But that’s fine. Thanks for the RPGs I guess, but maybe next time don’t bother.”

I mean, five lock picks? Really? There’s no way that harlot isn’t taking a few off the top. It’s a door with a big dumb circular lock on it. Two lock picks at most. Five though? Yeah, okay Elizabeth. No, sure whatever, it’s fine Elizabeth. No, it’s fine. I’m over it, enjoy your lock picks. Really. I hope you enjoy your lock picks. Not that I even comprehend what you’re doing with them or why you need to hurt me like this. Remember the merry-go-round? Sometimes I wish I’d died on that merry-go-round, Elizabeth. I guess, what I’m saying is you make me wish I was dead. But really, I’m over it.

But really. Elizabeth’s great. She’s a great girl. We don’t see each other as much as we used to, but we’re still really really good friends. We’re just in different places right now, you know? I appreciate a girl who appreciates value. Elizabeth appreciates taking all of my godamn lock picks and leaving me out in the cold with nothing but two fully funded weapons of mass destruction, near unending health care and fuel for psychic monster powers.

If you see Elizabeth, tell her I said “hi” and tell her “you’re going to need a lot more than all those lock picks you took from me if you ever want to pick open the lock on my godamn heart” and I guess ask how her dad is doing.

Not that I give a shit.