2013 is perhaps the first year where all of my favorite game titles are small, independently created games – and almost entirely PC titles. I spent very little of this past year playing console or handheld titles. PC games (and phone games) were not only more available, but they were almost unanimously more innovative and more compelling than what got released elsewhere.

Papers, Please

Papers, Please is a puzzle-sim that plays a bit like the old Carmen Sandiego titles, where you’re tasked with collecting information and making judgments based on that information. The setting and tone, however, could not be more different: You play as a newly-appointed immigration inspector at the border of a fictional Soviet-style country in the middle of the past century.

Papers, Please has absolutely fascinated me ever since I started playing it. On the one hand, as someone who loves text-based tests and puzzles, it’s a total blast. I can say without irony that I absolutely love scanning these immigrants’ documentation for inaccuracies and falsehoods and then interrogating them once I’ve found something that’s amiss. Errors can come in all shapes and sizes – forged seals, false cities of origin, improper files, black market identities. Some people have made innocent mistakes. Others are actively working against you, trying to slip contraband through the border, or elicit your help in overthrowing the brutal regime.

But Papers, Please is more than a government paperwork simulator – it’s a grim morality play that actively tries to make you feel uncomfortable about your work. Immigrant plead with you to let their relatives or spouses through, even though their documentation is incorrect. Others beg for help because they fear for their lives. Many have incorrect genders listed, requiring you to perform unpleasantly personal scans to confirm their identities (nudity can be toggled on and off, but the fact that it’s included at all should give you an idea of how the developers want you to feel about what’s going on here.) Some will try to kill you, or your guards. Others will simply make a break for the border.

And as much as you might care to be an inside agent and subvert your government’s totalitarian, ever-escalating policies, your own interests are in conflict. On my first playthrough, I took my time about scanning documentation, and tried to help whoever I could. The result? My pay was regularly docked, and I couldn’t afford food or heat for my family. After a couple of weeks, my mother-in-law, uncle, and son had died. And yet the game continues.

Papers, Please is fascinating not merely because someone had the gumption to make a game like this, but also for the fact that it’s really, really good.

Guacamelee

Originally released for PS3 and PS Vita, Guacamelee is an inspired return to Super Metroid-style platforming. It’s a bright, charming tale of a young hero in a Mexico-inspired world who must use the powers of a legendary luchadore mask to defeat unspeakable evil.

Guacamelee doesn’t do a great deal that’s brand new or out-of-this-world unique. What it DOES do is use classic platforming conventions in a game that embraces modern standards of gameplay convenience and quality. It has that easy-to-play but hard-to-master spark that so many great platformers thrive on. It embraces storytelling even as it puts gameplay first. It has fun, over-the-top moments that feel like they’re player-driven. It rewards quick reflexes and ability uses even as it gives you ample chances to screw up and try again.

Rogue Legacy

Rogue Legacy is a platformer that throws you into the same castle over and over and over again each time you die. The catch is that each time you start over, you’re playing as a new generation of your family’s heroic lineage, with a new set of skills and powers. What’s more, the castle’s rooms have rearranged themselves, guaranteeing that nothing is quite where you found it the last time you were here.

Like Dark Souls (one of my 2012 best-games), Rogue Legacy is incredibly stern but fair. It’s up front about how unforgivingly difficult it can be, but it gives the player ample opportunity to either succeed or fail entirely on their own merits. Every death in Rogue Legacy is earned, and that makes each one that much more rage-inducing. But the game gives you new opportunities every time you die. Gold collected by the newly-dead hero can be spent by their heir on home upgrades or new equipment, giving you a sense of forward progression even after you’ve failed. New heirs have physical or mental perks and penalties that vary gameplay in fun (or challenging) ways, like dwarfism, super-accurate memory, nearsightedness, or super strength. The game eventually opens up opportunities to preserve or further randomize the next playthrough, even giving you the opportunity to cheat death, if you’re lucky.

Rogue Legacy is an incredibly challenging game, but it’s one that lets you play the way that you want to play it, and it rewards and punishes you in equal measure to the effort that you put in. (My eventual victory over the castle took 200 lives – that is, 200 generations of my family tree!)

Shadowrun Returns

Shadowrun Returns is a return to brilliantly-told RPG story, and it comes in the form of a turn-based adventure set in the distant future of cyberpunk America: A world where dwarves, elves, trolls, and dragons co-exist with hackers, corporate police, and Illuminati executives. You play a Shadowrunner – a mercenary for hire whose past connections set up a chain of events taking you to a mad scientist’s lab, an ancient elven court, and a cult’s underground lair. It’s a well-woven story with interesting characters that touches many different corners of the Shadowrun universe in a logical way. It feels very reminiscent of the tabletop game on which it’s based.

There’s more Shadowrun to come in the future, with additional adventures coming soon from the creators – and a full suite of adventure creation tools that let fans make their own stories for people to experience.

Ridiculous Fishing

That a phone game would be on my list is no great surprise to me – Hero Academy was easily one of my favorite 2012 games. What surprises me is how deeply the fun of Ridiculous Fishing resonated with me. The game combines three basic mechanics in superb fashion: sink your lure as deeply as you can, hook as many fish on the way back up to the surface, and then blast the heck of the sky-flung fish with your shotgun before they drop back into the sea. The game’s core loop can be done in a matter of seconds, but every engagement adds to your overall progress, eventually unlocking new seas to explore, new gear to improve your fishing successes, and new armaments to take out your prey.

What really hooked me about Ridiculous Fishing, though, was its personality. The geometric art style of the game presents a wide, wide variety of progressively more-ridiculous fish. The game’s characters chat back and forth one another in an unobtrusive but laugh-out-loud Twitter pastiche. The encyclopedia of your catches is not only entertaining, but serves as a driving force, tempting you to catch-’em-all. The game’s charming soundtrack commands a surprising degree of pathos. Finally, the game actually does have a plot, but its threads are subtly and slowly introduced, revealing themselves only as things begin to matter.

Ridiculous Fishing is by far one of my favorite games. All the better that it’s on a phone. Mobile gaming is here and it’s capable of incredible things.

Honorable Mention – Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine

Monaco is a multiplayer stealth game about stealing thing. It is a great great premise with flawed execution, with uneven class balancing and gameplay that rewards the players for NOT doing things rather than doing things, as a game ought to.

However, in spite of these frustrations, my friends and I had a glorious time plumbing its depths through both of the first two mission threads. (After that, our patience had worn thin, and we turned toward other bank robbery simulators.)