John Tiberius Drake is the Director of Communications and Brand Management at Harmonix Music Systems, the star of Super Drake Tracker 2000 EX, a noted Diet Coke enthusiast, and a total lunatic, as you'll discover reading this list. Twitter.
Well, another year has come and gone in games.
It’s been a really weird year: Max Temkin gave me a bathtub of diet coke at PAX, Dan Teasdale gave me an office full of diet coke in Boston, and Ryan gave me a wheelbarrow of Diet Coke at his wedding. Also, video games came out and some of them were good.
I’m going to level with you: While this is a list of games that I really liked this year, it’s declaratively not a compendium of “the coolest games for cool kids” or “hipster walkabout games that only hardcore fans know how to install on their custom built Linux machines.” I can’t lie to you. 2013 was a year of me being a passive console gamer, and I didn’t have enough time to actually play some of the cooler games I’ve heard lots about and suspect I would love.
THAT SAID, I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I just like what I like. See you in the comments for hostility about how I have shitty taste. Let’s do this.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I was planning on doing this over the course of a few more days, but I got sick. Then Alex Navarro harassed me over text message after I took a whole buncha Nyquil, so this is going to be a BUMPY RIDE TO NUMBER ONE. STRAP IN. DON’T KNOW WHERE THIS IS GOING.
It’s an established fact that Dave Lang is a bad person who is bad for our industry. Luckily, the other people at Iron Galaxy managed to soldier past his lumbering frame of awfulness to create a fast-paced, novel and straight-up stupid masterpiece. I’m not “in the FGC” enough to get all the jokes, but I know for a fact that development at Harmonix took a significant hit when we got our Divekick controllers in house. YOU HEAR THAT EVERYONE? DAVE LANG IS CAUSING OUR GAMES TO SLIP BECAUSE HE’S PUTTING OUT HIS GAMES. Another clear reason he’s an asshole.
Oh no! It’s Free To Play! They’re gonna ruin it! How could theyyyyyyyyyySHUTUP. PvZ is unapologetically wonderful, addictive, and smartly designed. You can pay to advance a little easier, or you can enjoy hours of checkerboard tower defense fun with weird-ass plants STRAIGHT UP FOR FREE, SON. It’s crazy to me that this game is available at the huge cost of ZERO DOLLARS. WTF. So good.
Also, fuck a zombie swinging on a rope over my booby-traps and FUCK THAT PIRATE WITH A PARROT. That’s some bullshit.
Cannnnnnnn this series get any weirder/dumber/more amazing/more ridiculous? From having some of the best musical moments in licensed soundtrack history to actually making it fun to travel through an open world game, SRIV twists itself into hilarious pretzels to narratively justify gameplay that is perfectly dumb fun. I ended up liking GTA V a lot, but Saints Row IV keeps diverging from it’s relevant neighbor franchise more and more, delving into space aliens, super-powers, trippy dream sequences, and a gang-leader turned President of the United States who hangs out with Keith David because why the fuck not? So yes, play this game. It is preposterous.
Props to Johnny V for pulling off one of the most insane game ideas in a long time and actually making money with it. If you’re one of the uninitiated who still thinks Infinity is just “Skylanders but with Disney Characters”, you’re missing what makes this game nuts. Collecting toys to use as in-game characters is certainly part of the draw, but the ridiculous creative tools that Disney put together is the real star in Infinity. To let you build worlds/levels your characters can play around in and to combine different IPs from the Disney canon by forcefully smashing them into one another? Disney Infinity goes above and beyond what it needed to do to sell a bunch of plastic, because the devs at Avalanche set out to make a fundamentally interesting fantastic game and succeeded.
Also, for future reference, this is what “feature creep” in a game looks like:
John Vignocchi: “We’ll make toys!”
JV: “And they’ll each have their own custom level.”
Everybody: Sure, okay.
JV: “And then you’ll be able to mess around and combine them in a play space.”
Everybody: Look guys, we only have a few months to make…
JV: “AND THEN WE’LL PUT A WHOLE WORLD BUILDER IN WITH GAME LOGIC AND YOU CAN MAKE YOUR OWN LEVELS AND SUBMIT THEM AND…”
Everybody: Jesus…this Johnny V guy is a goddamn maniac.
Basically the only game on Next Gen consoles that looked like a next gen game and was still fun to play without reservation. More Assassin’s Creed, but with more shirtless blond handsome-man diving for treasure action. Also, all shanties, erryday.
5. Tomb Raider
From the very first trailer they put out, it was clear that Crystal Dynamics was setting out to create a new world for a new Lara Croft to inhabit and, in short, I think they nailed it. In fact, I was way more drawn into Tomb Raider than I expected to be when I bought it. In a year without an Uncharted release, it was fun to get my action/adventure/shooter fix in and explore with this reborn heroine, shooting rope arrows into everything and zooming around a world via zipline as Lara rapidly evolved from innocent to adventurer to justified killer of dozens of dudes.
It’s chock full of fun puzzles, weird magical mystic moments ala Indiana Jones, great traversal, cool action sequences and a really well-executed art style. RAID THOSE TOMBS!
ANOTHER IMPORTANT NOTE: At this point, I have decided the Nyquil is not working and am taking more Nyquil. Let’s continue on this journey together.
I was tempted to just write “DEM GIRAFFES” and leave it at that, but this game deserves a few more words. I am an unabashed Naughty Dog fanboy--Uncharted is probably my favorite modern franchise--but what Naughty Dog did with The Last of Us manages to combine a set of tropes from “zombie” or “post-apocalyptic” games with amazing writing, nuanced character development, and an eye for detail that makes it feel like its own, standalone genre.
I play games like these for the story, and The Last of Us doesn’t disappoint, creating a palpable tension between two lovable but deeply flawed characters who are forced together by duty and coincidence. As you play through the game, you live with them in the world that they inhabit. You share their frustrations and losses, struggles and rare moments of joy, terrors and faint optimism, all the way through to the twisted end.
The STYLE of the game--its moments of silence, choice of colors and even the floating fungus particles that make up the loading screen--feel so well-composed and well-edited. Even in moments where the gameplay didn’t immediately speak to me, I felt consistently drawn back to a world where everything feels unified and tailored to what the game is trying to accomplish.
And also, shit man. Dem Giraffes.
I went into GTA wanting to hate it--to find it sophomoric or pick apart its forced use of torture and be displeased at its lack of remotely redeeming female characters--and in those respects I did sorta hate it. But I forgot that in between any shittiness like that, there are brilliant details, a CRAZY open-world filled with bizarre interacting parts made up of endless places to explore, and a surprising amount of fun to be had.
At one point, after having a lot of fun gunning down a rival meth-cooking operation in the sticks, I cynically started looking for things to pick apart and dislike, since I was having “too much fun” just “doing what I expected from GTA.” Just as I got neurotic, analytical and overly thoughtful about the game, I wandered into a dialog path where Michael deconstructs Trevor as “a proto-hipster” before flippantly commenting he himself is “not a sadist.”
Look, Saint’s Row IV is always the game to go if you’re looking for blatantly self-aware game creations, but GTA V breaks with GTA IV’s self-serious nature and bends itself to skewer its characters, its construct, and, pre-emptively, everyone who is going to shit-talk its status as the biggest video game of the year. It is, in short, a technical and design triumph what Rockstar can accomplish on an Xbox 360. I don’t know how they do it. Plus heists are wicked fun and the whole thing reads like a bonkers action movie at its finest. Still playing it whenever I get a chance!
To get it out of the way up front, I don’t think that BioShock Infinite is without its problems: narratively, ludonarratively, and even level design-wise. And I was wicked let-down by the sky-hook, which I found to be far cooler in concept than fun to play with in execution.
But fuck if Irrational isn’t ambitious about what they’re making. Fuck if they don’t manage to make me put down the controller towards the end of their games and sit there with my hand over my mouth, wondering WTF is going on. And damn if they don’t create some great things along the way mechanically and artistically while making a game that’s pretty damn cool (which is way harder than it looks). I spent a lot of time thinking about the team that “had to make another BioShock” and how the game is really an allegory: a powerful group of creators trapped in a world they can’t leave behind.
The original BioShock was focused, ambitious, and amazing. It’s status as a blockbuster and overwhelming critical darling was a surprise that ended up defining what Irrational “should make.” When BioShock 2 came out, Ken Levine explained that Irrational wasn’t developing the sequel because they instead wanted to “swing for the fences” and “make something very, very different.”
But when all was said and done, BioShock Infinite isn’t, in its execution or even in its themes, “very, very different.” In many ways, it’s very much a sequel to the BioShock franchise--part of a continuum, built on the recombinant DNA of its progenitor. Because of what the studio originally created, Irrational is, on some level, fated to create the same game again and again, “There’s always a man…there’s always a lighthouse…”, and their aspirations will be constrained by and judged against that formative work.
If you manage to make something spectacular through your own toil and suffering, you will be expected and compelled to make something more spectacular. And even if you don’t want to revisit the frustrations and pain that led to “making the first one”, creating great things that satisfy the rabid audience you spawned means you’re inherently limited in how far you can push what you do when you come back to the drawing board. This is so true that--spoiler, but it’s the name of the DLC so whatever--Bioshock Infinite literally revisits the world of Rapture in the course of trying to do something different.
But even within that constraint, the team made a beautiful new game in the margins--adding characters like the Lutece Twins, a colorful, blindingly bright Columbia, a winding, twisting Mobius strip narrative that literally spans universes and time, and preserving the majority of the mechanical heart that beats at the core of BioShock. All the while, the game attacks with an ambitious story that burrows deep into the mental state of men who wish to create and rule worlds, men who feel a desperate need to “save” their collaborators in distress, and how ambitions can collapse the world around both of them. And then we learn that all those men are powerless to escape--the cycle simply starts over--you respawn and carry on and are back at the start menu, whether you’re fighting enemies, creating floating cities, or making new video games.
1. Peggle 2
ON A LIGHTER NOTE, PEGGLE 2 IS A GOOD REASON TO BUY AN XBOX ONE.
Is there a game that’s more joyous, random, frustrating or magical than Peggle? I got a code a few days early and proceeded to play Peggle in every waking moment that I had available--during conference calls, after hours in my office, first thing in the morning before work…
While Peggle 2 isn’t a huge leap beyond the original Peggle, it’s still fucking PEGGLE. And it’s charming as hell. And it has a dancing Yeti with an inexplicably pixelated butt. Keeping the game simple is something to be admired--because its simplicity is its power and its most addictive quality. But the small things--that the menu buttons play melodies as you thumb through them--are why this game is fantastic. The crisp background paintings are complemented by hilarious and weird character animations. Luna, the last master, is actually super weird, creepy and… sad? And the sound design is possibly the most nuanced and well-executed game element I’ve seen on next-gen so far.
Also, orange pegs killed my family. Thus, they must be destroyed. Peggle 2 is my revenge.
- Cookie Clicker – I cannot believe how much of my life became about this idler over the course of a few weeks. It boggles the mind. Grandmapocalypse.
- The Xbox One User Interface – Where have they hidden the feature you’re looking for? Shout out your answer at your TV!
- Madden NFL 25 - because it came with a streaming DirecTV NFL Package that lets me watch RedZone on my laptop/iPad! Still haven’t played the game yet.
- The Drake Tracker – Because Dan Teasdale is a monster, but this running gag made Ryan Davis laugh a LOT, so I figure it can’t be all bad.
PS. THE SECOND DOSE OF NYQUIL WAS A MISTAKE. G'NIGHT!