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John "Cowboy" Bellomy's Top 10 Games of 2013

Naughty Dog's resident animal herder returns to deliver another rootin', tootin' top 10 list.

John "Cowboy" Bellomy is a programmer extraordinaire at Naughty Dog, and possibly the only non-professional wrestler we know who can get away with including an in-quotations nickname in all instances of self-identification. You may yell at him about how he's not actually a cowboy via Twitter.

I think I was about halfway through The Swapper when I began to anticipate that much of what I will love about 2013’s videogame offerings would come from out of left field. This list seems to bear that idea out pretty thoroughly. It also made creating it a bit of a pain. Certainly I’ve played a lot more games than enumerated here, games I think you should play too. Yet my own coverage is also incomplete; no Wii U, 3DS or Xbox One yet has me missing out on conversations I want to be a part of.

So of course the natural conclusion is to abandon any pretense of authority and speak from a more personal perspective. These are the games of 2013 that, beyond being fun or well crafted, left me feeling like they had something more, something remarkable. Some brought a fresh perspective, some introduced me to new styles of play that I quite enjoyed. These are games that get me excited both as an enthusiast and make me want to do better as a developer. 2013 is a year that tells me that we as an industry are headed towards some very cool places.

10. Rogue Legacy

This subversive little game taunts you with punishing platforming while quietly retraining your brain to not think of death as an end, but as a means. Failure in the castle was rewarded with new abilities, new gear, and the promise that you can totally make it a little bit further now. Oh look, there went six hours.

9. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (PS4)

Despite the embracing of my favorite parts of AC3, I was still skeptical to see a subsequent release so soon afterwards. The series seemed to have lost its swagger, the weight of tradition turning the game design bland; it all seemed a bit much to get back within a year. Well hats off to Ubisoft for pulling off an impressive turnaround feat. Sitting on a moonlit island or firing a barrage of cannons through the thunderstorm, the world of AC4 felt rich and well-realized. Swinging onto the deck of a wounded enemy ship then letting loose a few bullets before engaging in some honest-to-god swashbuckling never got old for me. Always the first stop in any port is the same: go get me some sweet new sea shanties, the best collectible this year, hands down.

8. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

This game surprised me. Every time I thought this game couldn’t get more beautiful a graceful camera pan showed me how wrong I was. The story landed with such a well crafted emotional weight that I was unprepared for. So many small moments, both joyous and tragic, in a world at once fantastic and intimate, all packed into a few short hours. Yet the game never felt incomplete or wanting. Is there such a thing as the ‘perfect bite’ of video games? This might be it.

7. Papers, Please

Not a fun game. It’s an effective, intense exercise in empathy. But I can’t say I had fun per se when I played Papers, Please. To hear Lucas Pope tell the story of it’s inception, travelling through airport security and wanting to take an eye to seemingly mundane, it becomes pretty obvious he nailed his goal. How effectively the game mechanics brings out the dehumanizing effects that come from such a job is a testament to their elegance and brilliance. I still struggle to explain the draw to keep playing a game that can evoke such a level of stress. Just need to keep the line moving, get back in the rhythm, head down, eyes on the paperwork.

6. Tearaway

I’m pretty sure there was an audible *squeee* when I first started playing Tearaway. Media Molecule are still masters of charming the freaking pants off you. The art style, the story, world premise and of course the narration are all brilliantly crafted and assembled here (and with vastly improved platforming feel). The game feels completely harmonious with its platform showcasing some of the best use of features like rear touch. Every time the camera filled the sun with my face it was sure to be a goofy one. Moving through the world, seeing it become my own with all the small touches left behind, it felt very rewarding, and left me curled on my sofa with my Vita in a happy little bubble.

5. The Swapper

A well done and distinctive art style, challenging puzzles and fantastic science fiction story, The Swapper hooked me right away. The tone and atmosphere created entices you to dig deeper into the world. The way they ask you to bend your brain on every new puzzle is both challenging and rewarding. By the end (and what a great ending) the core mechanic feels thoroughly wrung out for all its juicy goodness.

4. Gunpoint

Another instant favorite for me, Gunpoint’s combination of reckless acrobatics, deadly weapons and dastardly manipulation of security systems made for many moments of “I can’t believe I just got away with that.” Coupled with some truly excellent (and some of the funniest) writing I knew I had to see it through to the finale, which was my favorite all year. You know what’s better than tackling a dude? Doing it coming in through a third story window.

3. Diablo III (PS3)

While most of my list might be considered offbeat, Diablo III stands in stark contrast. It is a distillation of a refinement of an iteration of game design. I can feel love and dedication put into the vast tables of numbers, data honed to give the game its finely tuned balance. Though for the many (many) hours I spent playing it on the PC, it never felt quite right. I never wanted to play the auction house game, I just wanted to play the stomp monsters for loot game. Now with the purity of focus with the AH removed, Diablo III on consoles feels like the crystallization of that idea. Deftly ported to a controller-based interface it is the sole reason I put my PS4 on hold and fire up my PS3 these days. I’ve built up a pretty nice stable of characters now, each devoted to either solo play, online co-op or couch co-op. Thank god they are bringing PS4 character transfers.

2. The Stanley Parable (and Demo)

I was lucky to come into The Stanley Parable blind. Seeing it unfold in front of me left an indelible impression on me as both a player and creator. The witty and insightful deconstruction I found to be the most thoughtful and darkly humorous meditation on my favorite medium. It’s a game that entices you to question the structure of games, and what it is we think they can do. What do you value as a player? What does it mean to exist in a world of someone else’s creation? Whose story are you telling? These are not easy questions, and as I think I’ve just proven, impossible to raise without sounding like an asshole. Still, I can’t help but feel I came away better for the experience, as well as thoroughly entertained.

1. Kerbal Space Program

Once in a while a game comes along that just takes you over. It fills every gap of free time and occupies all your wandering thoughts. Kerbal Space Program’s assault on me was thorough and unrelenting. No bitter a defeat or victory so sweet as those that I made for myself in KSP. Progress felt genuine and earned. I became invested in the success of my missions, missions of my own conceiving, planning, and execution. Adventures carefully crafted using transfer calculators, delta-V window planners, and payload efficiency charts. I lost hours learning about actual space flight, applying the lessons back into the game with tangible results (I also got to bug the SpaceX guys about asparagus staging ^_^). Sometimes I would walk home, look up at the moon, and not see some distant concept, but a combination of ejection burns and orbital transfers. Space felt more accessible, more exciting, and goddamned impressive. I suspect it will be a long while before I have wrung out the last drops of exploration KSP has to offer, especially now as career mode starts to coalesce. So a toast, then, to solid fuel boosters. The cause of, and solution to, all of rocketry’s problems.

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Edited by Grissefar

Oh no, I think you forgot Revengeance. Really cool game, man. So tight. So little bullshit.

So the thing that always pissed me off about you was how even though Ryan tried his best, John Vignocchi and Adam Boyes would enter a peeing race to see who could shout the loudest every time you were about to say something. Thats why I really loved the E3 stuff this year with just John Blow and Vince Zampella. So chill. So insightful.

Posted by Draxyle

Kudos for putting KSP at the top. Every single update I find myself losing yet another unspeakable amount of hours to it.

It's easily my game of the year.. and last year too if I really think about it.

Posted by mrangryface

Good list!

Posted by jimmyfenix

Last of us.

Posted by TheBioLover

No Last of Us!?!?!?!?! /s

Posted by Scotto

Oh no, I think you forgot Revengeance. Really cool game, man. So tight. So little bullshit.

So the thing that always pissed me off about you was how even though Ryan tried his best, John Vignocchi and Adam Boyes would enter a peeing race to see who could shout the loudest every time you were about to say something. Thats why I really loved the E3 stuff this year with just John Blow and Vince Zampella. So chill. So insightful.

I don't understand why this is a Cowboy problem? Did you just explain this poorly, or am I just a terrible reader?

Edited by CaLe

You worked on what I consider to be the best game ever made (TLOU), Cowboy, and I heartily salute you for it.

Posted by lennyy

Great to see Kerbal getting well earned respect.

Posted by TOA5T3R

Good read!

Edited by joshwent

Oh snap. Cowboy, you should never stop making games, but I'm sure Space X must need some coders...

Posted by wjb

@scotto said:

@grissefar said:

Oh no, I think you forgot Revengeance. Really cool game, man. So tight. So little bullshit.

So the thing that always pissed me off about you was how even though Ryan tried his best, John Vignocchi and Adam Boyes would enter a peeing race to see who could shout the loudest every time you were about to say something. Thats why I really loved the E3 stuff this year with just John Blow and Vince Zampella. So chill. So insightful.

I don't understand why this is a Cowboy problem? Did you just explain this poorly, or am I just a terrible reader?

You're not.

While I agree with @grissefar to an extent, I don't see how that's Cowboy's problem. This past E3, Cowboy had a chance to finally speak and I always love it when he talks shop, but Max Temkin decided to interrupt him and bring back a joke that was funny 25 minutes prior. Ryan got distracted and moved on, and we never got to hear from Cowboy again, so I'm glad to hear from him with his list.

Basically what I'm saying is: ayo Max, luv u, but........shut the fuck up.

Posted by buemba

KSP really is something else. I've spent at least 6 hours trying to place a satellite on the planet's orbit and failing spectacularly (And every single Kerbal I managed to put in space is now dead because I still don't know how to bring them back safely), but I don't find it frustrating at all and know that when I do succeed I'll feel like a god.

Posted by dr_mantas

This is a very good list.

Posted by Grissefar

@wjb said:

@scotto said:

@grissefar said:

Oh no, I think you forgot Revengeance. Really cool game, man. So tight. So little bullshit.

So the thing that always pissed me off about you was how even though Ryan tried his best, John Vignocchi and Adam Boyes would enter a peeing race to see who could shout the loudest every time you were about to say something. Thats why I really loved the E3 stuff this year with just John Blow and Vince Zampella. So chill. So insightful.

I don't understand why this is a Cowboy problem? Did you just explain this poorly, or am I just a terrible reader?

You're not.

While I agree with @grissefar to an extent, I don't see how that's Cowboy's problem. This past E3, Cowboy had a chance to finally speak and I always love it when he talks shop, but Max Temkin decided to interrupt him and bring back a joke that was funny 25 minutes prior. Ryan got distracted and moved on, and we never got to hear from Cowboy again, so I'm glad to hear from him with his list.

Basically what I'm saying is: ayo Max, luv u, but........shut the fuck up.

Dang son, you equivocating like a motherfucker. It's not a Cowboy problem - it's a format problem. That's why I loved the new, more intimate format better. Dang.

Edited by Milkman

It's probably hard to make a top 10 list when you had a hand in developing far and away the best game of the year.

Edited by Winternet

This list is a goddam good one.

Posted by JAVK

Nice list as usual.

Posted by Mikemcn

YEAAAA KSP! Game is great, i went to the moon once, did not comeback though =(

Online
Posted by GioVANNI

Really happy to see KSP get some love. That game is up there in some of my favorite games of all time list.

Posted by Hassun

Those Kerbal Space Program websites you linked scare the fuck out of me.

Posted by AlexanderSheen

Cowboy is an awesome duder and I hope we'll see him more in the future.

Posted by Andy_117

Oh man, KSP. I think it's still in beta though? Which doesn't matter. Just means when it's properly released we can get KSP on the list again. Minecaft style.

Posted by BelligerentEngine

Dang son, you equivocating like a motherfucker. It's not a Cowboy problem - it's a format problem. That's why I loved the new, more intimate format better. Dang.

It's not his fault that your first post was about as cogent as a dog attempting to bark the alphabet with a mouthful of peanut butter.

Edited by Sammo21

@scotto: He just explained it poorly, I assume.

I actually found most of the people who talked the loudest at this year's E3 shows to be complete fucking tools. They may not be in real life but DAMN did they come off that way. The worst was that guy in the blue shirt from...Gearbox? Maybe he was just unsure of how to act with the Bombers but he came across as a total dick to me.

Cowboy always comes up classy, humble, and then gets shouted down.

Posted by hollitz

Last of us.

No Last of Us!?!?!?!?! /s

That would be in pretty poor taste wouldn't it?

Posted by Vegetable_Side_Dish

^_^

Posted by masterpaperlink

ok i think its time i bought the swapper, can someone tell me how it ranks against vessel? The two seem like similar experiences and i really like vessel.

Posted by Grissefar

@grissefar said:

Dang son, you equivocating like a motherfucker. It's not a Cowboy problem - it's a format problem. That's why I loved the new, more intimate format better. Dang.

It's not his fault that your first post was about as cogent as a dog attempting to bark the alphabet with a mouthful of peanut butter.

Yeah man, maybe. And maybe you shouldn't blame people every time there's something you don't understand. You really shouldn't.

Posted by MrBubbles

His name sounds like something from a video game.

Posted by OriginalYellow

One of my most anticipated guest lists, awesome picks.

Posted by ThunderSlash

Favorite part of one of the E3 live shows was when Cowboy started talking about how the overturned ship E3 demo they made for Uncharted 3 was put together. That shit was nuuuuutz.

Edited by Nentisys

Props for mentioning The Swapper. Im really surprised it has not graced more top 10 lists with its glorious presence.

Posted by AMyggen

Love that first place choice!

Posted by BigD145

Fuck yes, Kerbals.

Posted by Parsnip

Great list Cowboy.

Dat Kerbal, man.

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