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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.