My Top 10 Games of 2013

10. Year Walk

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Year Walk is creepy, cold, and quiet. All descriptors I avoid when I pick games to play, but somehow I ended up playing it. Everything’s weird and unintelligible, and I think that’s fitting for a game that’s more a thematic piece than a game. Its puzzles are simple and often clever. They’re really a means to uncover the next piece of disturbing imagery. That I actually finished it is shocking, considering I usually avoid horror games. Nevertheless, I was lost in its bleak little forest and I have no regrets.

9. Ridiculous Fishing

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Ridiculous Fishing caught me for a six hour marathon. I almost never play a game for that long unless I’ve got a deadline to hit. The art style is simple, the goals are simple, and the narrative is simple, but the design builds to an amazing crescendo, mirroring its titular, three-step process. It has a satisfying combination of depth and frenzied, reflex-based design. It’s also just damn fun.

8. The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1: Faith

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I loved almost all of Telltale’s The Walking Dead season 1. The writing in particular. But I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely ways to make something as rote as zombies interesting, but it’s something I’ve been exposed to a lot in my life. I don’t read a lot of comics, so I had no idea what the Fables comics were about going into The Wolf Among Us. Now, I’m working my way through them to get my fix while I wait for episode 2.

The first episode blends Telltale’s penchant for writing and a group of surprising characters in an almost noire, detective story. That made the dialogue/interrogations do what L.A. Noire could never do for me. They made me theorize and analyze like all good detectives do. It’s perfect for Telltale’s structure and it’s clear they can pull off a good, plodding mystery. I’m eager to see what’s next.

7. Gunpoint

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I admire how clean, smart, and simple Gunpoint is, and I’m jealous it’s only Tom Francis’ first game. Of course the writing is witty and punchy, but what I wasn’t expecting how kinetic the pacing feels. It reminds me of Mark of the Ninja, a game I herald as having incredibly fluid design. Like Mark of the Ninja, Gunpoint rewards you having a plan before attacking, and that’s just how I like to play games.

6. The Stanley Parable

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It’s difficult to describe why I think The Stanley Parable is so brilliant. For me, it was the subversive way it approached free will. As I played I started to connect the dots, I started to question a lot of things about the game, and all of it felt intentional, carefully crafted to dig into my head. And at some point, it froze me in deep, almost philosophical thought. I’ve never had that happen to me in a game. If that was the goal, then it worked.

5. Antichamber

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The way Antichamber undoes everything I thought I knew about video games seduced me. It didn’t just feel fresh, it tickled my brain, and made me adjust my thinking to its own logic. Some games let us explore beautiful worlds that suck us in. Its puzzles had the same effect. Nothing this year replicated the euphoria of finally understanding it. Nothing taught me so well.

4. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

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It’s like Dark Souls, need I say more? The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the first Zelda game I’ve ever finished. I finished it because the open structure, the emphasis on exploration, and the superb level design. There’s something so clean and intricate about it. It’s that elegance that quickly made it one of my favorite games this year.

3. BioShock Infinite

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I’ve had a weird relationship with BioShock Infinite. When it came out, I basically left reality for 2 days. I was completely wrapped up in Booker and Elizabeth’s story. I kept thinking I heard the music of Columbia in my head. It was a week I’ll remember for a long time. A few months later, the spell wore off and I realize many of the problems I had with the game. None of them were huge, most of them were with the combat. But I think great games can have problems too, and I can’t take back my first, incredible experience with it. I wouldn’t even do it if I could. Irrational Games’ fictional world, characters, and themes stuck with me, and I think that it’s worthy enough for this list.

2. The Last of Us

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The Last of Us sticks to a specific mood and nails it. Every part works in tandem to achieve a goal. It has something to say, and it’s not afraid of getting there on its own time. I admire Naughty Dog’s ability to combine a story with design that’s both interesting and touching. Sometimes I forget big-budget games can do that. Most importantly for me, it’s a game that understands its own limitations and the easy mistakes other games often make. It trusts itself and the player in ways that I’m still baffled by. It’s a stunning work.

1. Gone Home

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I thought real hard about it and I can’t think of one single thing that damaged my experience of Gone Home. All I can think of is how much I adore The Fullbright Company’s first game, and how important I think it is for games as a medium. It’s a game about exploring a house. It’s mundane and personal and moving, all at the same time. I love everything about it. The characters, the soundtrack, the art style, and the design. A lot of that is because I grew up very close to where the game is set, so it easy for me to connect to, but combined with the writing and the score, the rest of it found a way to my heart too. It made me appreciate games in a new way. It’s rare and it’s special. It’s my favorite game of the year.

My Top 10 Games of 2012

10. Spec Ops: The Line

SpecOpsI respect Spec Ops: The Line for what it wants to say about modern, military shooters, despite the troubles it goes through to convey it. It takes a little effort to peel back its layers, but once you do, its intelligence really shines. I never want to play Spec Ops: The Line again. It’s not fun, and it makes you feel bad about yourself. It’s an overall unpleasant experience. But I think it can be all that, and still be just as meaningful, if not more, than most other games this year.

9. The Darkness 2

TheDarkness2I almost forgot The Darkness 2 existed, let alone came out this year. As much as I hate the term “quad-wielding,” it’s the best way to describe what it feels like to control two shadowy creatures along with two guns. You form a mechanical bond with the tools at your fingertips as you whip and tear dudes in half. There’s a distinct sense of speed as you lay waste to those who oppose you. It’s a controlled frenzy of blood and bullets. The quiet moments between Jackie and his girlfriend are good too. They’re intimate for the sake of being intimate. I kept expecting some weird twist or explosion to happen at the end of those scenes, but they didn’t, and I liked that.

8. Asura’s Wrath

AsurasWrathAsura’s Wrath is hard to explain without making it sound like the worst thing ever. It’s a Japanese, episodic, quick time event game. You’ll watch it like a television show, and press buttons to keep it going. The small amount of gameplay makes room for the gigantic, planet-sized action that unfolds. It’s absurd enough to make your forget you’re just following the game’s instructions the entire time. If it weren’t so self-aware, Asura’s Wrath could have been terrible. But it isn’t, and it’s one of the most surprisingly good games this year.

7. Far Cry 3

FarCry3Far Cry 3 is the first game I played on my newly-built PC. It was my entry into modern PC gaming, and proof that I could put together a bunch of electronics to make a working machine. After you get past how beautiful Far Cry 3 is, you realize how great it is to be dropped on an island, alone, with a gun. This all became clear to me after a few hours of playing. I was atop one of the games watch towers, overlooking what seemed like the entire island, lush foliage, flowing grass, and all, when the faint roar of a tiger in mid-leap rumbled through my headset. Looking down, I watched as a tiger mauled a group of bandits on patrol. One of them was not just any ordinary bandit. No, he was a armored, Molotov cocktail-throwing bandit. He wasn’t equipped with a gun. So what did he do? He resorted to his only weapon of choice, and set the a portion of the jungle on fire, killing both himself and the tiger in a fiery death. I zip-lined down into the charred remains and continued on my quest to save my girlfriend. You should play Far Cry 3.

6. Halo 4

Halo4I’m a sucker for Halo games. Always have been. Before playing Halo 4, I realized I had literally grown up with the Master Chief and Cortana, and the idea of seeing them again made me nervous. Would Halo still be the game I remembered so fondly, or had nostalgia clouded my memory? Turns out, Halo 4 is still the Halo I once loved. Sure, it’s more of the same. But that’s what I wanted. Halo remains an anomaly in the first-person shooter space, and it’s still an absolute blast to play.

5. Mass Effect 3

MassEffect3Mass Effect 3 is a testament to investment in video game fiction. Few games warrant the amount of criticism it received. You can’t end a trilogy that attempts to encompass millions of players’ choices without pissing off a few thousand people — and I think that’s great. Ultimately, Mass Effect 3 handles the expectations well, offering a solid playing game wrapped up in an impactful narrative.

4. Dishonored

DishonoredI hate stealth games. It’s the demand for precision that ruins it for me. When I stumbled out of the darkness in Dishonored the fun didn’t stop. It gave me a chance to climb over its barriers, make mistakes, and adapt to its stealth system without punishment. Before long, I was completing missions as a ghost, and manipulating the world from the shadows. I’d also like to award Blink my Ability Of The Year Award, it’s sometimes hilarious, and endlessly useful. I could live without those damn acid-shooting plants, though.

3. The Walking Dead

TheWalkingDeadI love that The Walking Dead embraces its strengths and never looks back. I loved how deep it dug into my moral depths, and didn’t shy away from confronting me with my mistakes. There’s nothing clean about my playthrough, about how things ended. But I’d never change it, and that, I think, is the true power of The Walking Dead.

2. Journey

JourneyJourney is an exercise in video game puppetry. It pulls the strings on your emotions with a well-rehearsed grace no other game has performed. It’s dazzling to look at, and at times, you forget it’s a video game. Coupled with its study of anonymous interaction, Journey is an experience worth having.

1. Fez

FezAs part of the generation of players who missed the era before games had tutorials, I latched onto Fez’s alien world. Below its indie charm lies a glitchy, cryptic underside I couldn’t stop myself from slipping into. All the message boards and failed attempts to crack the game’s final puzzle made me feel like a part of some kind of secret society of video game hackers. If anything, the scribbled symbols and ciphers on this notebook paper are proof Fez is pretty rad.

My Top 10 Games of 2011

10. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

It’s not often that a game will feel dated in the best of ways, I can only assume Eidos Montreal made some dark deals to uncover the secret to make Deus Ex: Human Revolution feel like an ode to the original game, while making sure to nestle 21st century storytelling in between. Human Revolution is confident enough to untie the rope most games fear to remove and give you the power to tackle a situation however you choose. And in between crawling through vents and stacking crates, two sides of society fight over technology’s utility and promise, a rote argument sure, but it’s handled intelligently. Human Revolution worked hard to retain the balance between new and old and succeeded.

9. Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2 did a lot of iterative things, however each of them made for a much better experience. Instead of gore, Dead Space 2 frightened with tension and psychological insanity. Watching Isaac Clarke begin to lose his mind over the course of the game kept me on my toes. Severing limbs with crazy space weaponry wasn’t bad either. I tend to stay away from most horror games because of the cliches they feel the need to run through. Dead Space 2 is one of the rare games that uses its environment to cause an unnerving sense of dread. The January release date didn’t do this game any favors, it stands strong among this year’s holiday releases and shouldn’t be overlooked.

8. L.A. Noire

Partly because of my love for the era and the noire style, L.A. Noire hooked me for a lot of reasons. Team Bondi’s stunningly accurate depiction of a 1940s Los Angeles was a delight to look at. The cases themselves also brought a tone unique to the time period. L.A. Noire’s most important attribute has to be the facial animation technology. We needed a game to take conversation this far. L.A. Noire might not have been perfect, but it was a concept that needed to be seen to completion. It brought a sense of class and maturity few games attempt to do.

7. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Many of the moments in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception made me speechless with the sheer amount of technical artistry. No other game developer will let you play inside a capsizing cruise liner like Naughty Dog. Uncharted 3 is all about split-second decisions and when you make them correctly, the game flows better than most summer blockbusters. It’s the attention to detail, the meaningful writing, the character interaction and  the puzzles that make Uncharted 3 worth playing.

6. Batman: Arkham City

If Batman simulation were a genre, Rocksteady would be masters of the craft. Batman: Arkham City does what other games still haven’t mastered with flair. The combat walks the line between simple and complex while remaining just as brutal as it was in Arkham Asylum, if not more. Preying on enemies both indoors and out never becomes a chore, it’s just so much fun pummeling fools into the ground. Did I mention it’s also a superb Batman story, juggling the right amount of villians to bring a sense of urgency throughout? Rocksteady didn’t hesitate to shove as much love for Batman in as possible and it’s apparent from beginning to end.

5. Gears of War 3

The Gears of War franchise is blamed for being very obnoxious, what with all the chainsaws and gore, but Gears 3 proves that below the rigid surface the characters have feelings other than anger. Gears 3 feels like a fitting end to Marcus Fenix and company’s story arch. A few moments in Gears 3 are far more touching than they should have been and I think they end up being so because of all the baggage we’ve aided the characters in carrying during the past two games. Gears 3 surprised me this year. It wasn’t the mastery of cover-based shooting this time around, it was watching these characters cope with war. I never thought I’d say it, but it is elegant in the way it portrays damage on its characters, especially in the final scene. Gears 3 rose above with unexpected maturity, if you haven’t finished it, do yourself a favor and fix that.

4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

It’s hard not to get overwhelmed when The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim shoves you out into the blinding sunlight after the initial tutorial dungeon. The amount of things to do is stunning and the fact that so many of those things aren’t poorly made is even more so. Whether it’s eating bugs, slaying dragons, crafting armor, learning spells, dungeon crawling, bartering or murder, almost everything is under your control in Skyrim. Sure, Oblivion did it before, but Skyrim does it while looking beautiful and packing a crisp looking UI to boot. Don’t listen to the naysayers, Skyrim is a place worth staying.

3. Saints Row: The Third

“A f***ing tiger?! A f***-ing tiger?! What the f*** is wrong with you?!” If that doesn’t sum up most of Saints Row: The Third, I don’t know what will. Despite not having the tightest of controls or the strongest of stories, Saints Row 3 does so many things, so many, in complete service of its tone. It’s also legitimately funny, making it one of the two games this year that had me chuckling more than a few times. But it’s not just the absurdity that won me over, Saints Row 3 is written in such a way that the jokes never fall flat or feel awkwardly placed. Volition knows what works and doesn’t break to justify anything. Saints Row 3 is a romp that’s a pure joy to play.

2. Portal 2

Portal 2 met my highest expectations and more.  As expected, Valve pulls it off with the kind of ingenuity only it can provide. Portal 2 expands so wide in scope compared to the first game that you can’t help but to lose yourself poking around in the abandoned testing chambers, with the added ability to tell a story of their own through the deterioration. Working out solutions for the giant rooms you’re dropped in was always an exercise in clever thinking and the jolt of glee upon success is unparalleled.  Even the few characters thrown in end up being some of gaming’s greatest. Valve did it again, Portal 2 is a wonderful sequel.

1. Bastion

I’m not sure exactly what I expected before I started up Bastion for the first time. A few mentions of Diablo-esque slash-and-forget gameplay without the loot, narrated by a mysterious voice were tossed around, as well as an “acoustic frontier trip-hop” soundtrack. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been listening prior to playing it, but it was clear it took more than a sentence to describe what made Bastion so brilliant. Bastion’s devotion to the player goes farther than what other games would dare to reach for. Narratively, visually, musically and mechanically, the world builds with your every step. I loved every second I spent in Caledonia. Bastion is unforgettable.

My Top 5 Albums of 2011 and More!

Top 5 Albums of 2011

5.

Lights – Siberia

Siberia is what I always wanted from Lights. It’s a far more mature album with a darker tone and minus the auto-tune. It’s okay to skip the previous album because Siberia trumps it in every way. Lights found the groove she is better suited for and I’ll never look back.

Listen to Banner, Heavy Rope and Fourth Dimension.

4.

Darren Korb – Bastion Original Soundtrack

Bastion is a wonderful game, but the soundtrack holds its own too. Darren Korb’s “acoustic frontier trip-hop” is unlike anything I’ve heard. The soundtrack from front to back is constantly moving at a tight pace dropping twangy guitar riffs and thick percussion beats left and right.  Bastion’s soundtrack imprints a signature style that most other games skip, it cannot be overlooked.

Listen to Terminal March and Setting Sail, Coming Home.

3.

The Color Morale – My Devil In Your Eyes

The joys of finding a new band to listen to are twofold when it’s not just the one popular song on YouTube that keeps you listening. And while My Devil In Your Eyes has a few eye-rolling metalcore moments, Garret Rapp’s vocals clean it up. It’s a grungier melodic sound, a dirtier, slower paced August Burns Red if you will. It’s clear The Color Morale have something special here.

Listen to The Dying Hymn, Walkers and Demon Teeth.

2.

 

Panic! At The Disco – Vices & Virtues

Panic! At The Disco’s third album Vices & Virtues has the kind of swagger that you wouldn’t expect coming from a band that was once a four-piece. It grabs the good parts out of old Panic! At The Disco–namely, the energy–and kneads them into a matured modern pop rock sound. The lyrics are twisted and the sound is constantly catchy. Vices & Virtues is a successful comeback and their best album to date.

Listen to Hurricane, and Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met…).

1.

Of Mice & Men – The Flood

It’s hard to sound different among most of the other metalcore bands out there. Of Mice & Men just barely did it with their self-titled debut. Luckily, they nearly threw out every direction they were seemingly going for and produced a much more savage and ruthless sound for The Flood. Everything hits hard until Shayley Bourget’s vocals weave through the sound and bring it all together. The Flood is metalcore at its best and is a non-stop joy to listen to.

Listen to My Understandings, Purified, and Product Of A Murderer.

These are good too

Woe, is Me – Vengeance

Memphis May Fire – The Sinner

Oh, Sleeper – Dealers Of Flame

The Devil Wears Prada – Untidaled and Born To Lose

I Set My Friends On Fire – It Comes Naturally

D.R.U.G.S – The Only Thing You Talk About

Maniac Robot – Is Gone

As I Lay Dying – Paralyzed and Confined (Kelly “Carnage” Cairn Remix)–sorry no video!

Foo Fighters – Bridge Burning, Rope and Dear Rosemary.

The Joy Formidable – Heavy Abacus and Whirring.

and

Kreayshawn – Gucci, Gucci

From Pixels to Polygon’s Best of 2009

The video game  industry saw shocking breakthroughs and terrible losses, but all of it made 2009 a very important year. Now that we are 11 days into the brand new year I’ve had some time to think about what games really stood out in 2009.  Here are the few that kept me smiling even past December 31st.

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