Author Archives: Travis

The End of an Era: Epilogue

My 10 year wedding anniversary would’ve been Fri, Oct 20th, ten days ago. It’s mind-blowing how much can change in ten years. I knew it was coming up, expected to be all reflective. So what did I do that Friday? Honestly, it completely slipped my mind on the day of, and I didn’t think of it once. I went to work, went to Side Quest where I met no less than four new people, one of which became a new friend, then I went home and thought of someone who most definitely was not my ex-wife.
 
One of my favorite song verses ever is “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you, that I almost believe that they’re real. I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you, that I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel.” I’ve always thought of those lyrics as refering to a lost love. But today, they mean something different to me. Today, they’re actually a pretty accurate description of how I feel.
 
Thing is, it was so long ago and both me and my life are so different now, on some level it almost doesn’t feel real anymore. It’s probably been six or seven years since I talked to my ex-wife; I have no idea where she is, what her life is like, or even if her phone number is the same. I’m sure she’s a very different person now as well. My ex-sister-in-law was less than a year old when I met her. She’d be about 14 or 15 now. I probably wouldn’t even recognize her if I saw her on the street. I have many memories that are clear as day, my wedding was amazing, and I’ve never stopped thinking of that time of my life, and probably never will. But I guess this means that, while it remains a tentpole time in my life, I’m so far removed from it now that it’s only meaningful to me in abstraction. It’s become a fable, a distant page in the history book of my life, relatable only because I know I lived through it. Hell, I expected to write about this at least a week ago, but the fact of the matter is I kept blowing it off because I didn’t feel I needed to.
 
I’d say this was liberating or enlightening if I felt I still needed closure, but I don’t. I got that years ago. Still interesting though, how even after so long thoughts and perspectives can continue to evolve in unexpected ways, so much so that it took me nearly a week and a half to be able to articulate it. Not good or bad, just interesting. In that sense, I’m glad I did finally decide to say a little something about it. Not what I originally anticipated, but still plenty worthwhile, in my opinion. Sometimes you need to think something through and get it out, not to vent, find closure, or even to learn from it, but simply to understand it.
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A Day To Be Inspired

Even though I didn’t have to be at work today, and despite having staying up way too late the night before catching up on episodes of @midnight, I found myself laying in bed at 8am and unable to get back to sleep. I’d intended to take devote the entire day to diving headfirst into Fallout 4, but a shipping delay with a certain mail carrier who shall remain nameless (when mispronounced, it rhymes with “cups”) meant that my copy wouldn’t be arriving until later in the day. Thus, in a rare confluence of inspiration and the free time immediately available to actually act on it, I found myself thinking of the reason why I had the day off work in the first place.

Veteran’s Day. Right up there with Memorial Day, it’s without a doubt one of the most meaningful holidays we have as a people. Observed similarly in other parts of the world as Armistice Day, it was originally meant to coincide with the end of World War I, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed the occasion with the following: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” In 1945, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill expanding Armistice Day into a day to remember all veterans, and Congress passed it less than a week later.

I’ve always had the utmost respect for the men and women who serve in the military. Regardless of your thoughts on politics, politicians, the wars we fight, or the current state of the world (and there’s a lot to think and talk about), it can’t be denied that the people serving in the armed forces have the most difficult job of all. Some do it because they’re in a bad position in life and don’t see another option available to them. Some do it because they know that in putting in their time they’ll be given training, a GI bill, and a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences. Yet others do it because they simply have pride for their country and want to dedicate their lives to defending it.

But whatever their motivation, they’ve volunteered to put their lives, friendships, families, and educations on hold to be a part of something greater than themselves. We break them down, only to build them back up into the men and women we want them to be. We train them, instill them with discipline, arm them, and send them to far off places to do jobs they have no say in. They’re asked to do things by people in power they’ve never met, and sometimes don’t agree with, but they do it anyway because they respect their superiors and have a job to do. They endure years away from those they love, everything they’ve known, and are expected to do unpleasant and impossible things, in many cases literally putting their lives on the line in the name of an ideal. For the hope that their efforts will help a cause.

But it’s not without reward. Military service is hugely beneficial for the majority of those who choose to enlist. I’ve heard stories of teenagers of broken, abuse-filled homes going on to become incredible people who accomplish things they never dreamed themselves capable of. The skills, experiences, friends, and travels they gain are unlike any other. As much of a sacrifice as it is, I’m in awe at the places they visit and the camaraderie they develop.

I find that there’s a few ways I like to pay some attention to those who inspire me like this. Some are better than others. Of course, there’s video games, plenty of which attempt to recreate warlike atmosphere. Call of Duty, with its Michael Bay approach of beating you over the head with explosions, weighty death scenes, and an endless supply of terrorists to shoot in the face. Medal of Honor Frontline was always a favorite of mine from the PS2 era, with possibly the most thrilling recreation of the storming of the beaches of Normandy ever put in a game, as well as one of the most beautiful, moving orchestral scores I’ve heard from a World War II-based shooter.

Movies are even better than games, if less interactive. The obvious choice here is Saving Private Ryan, but there are many others. Most people have a fondness for Das Boot, but I’ve always preferred U-571. In terms of a small band of US soldiers facing enormous adversity and coming out the other side, it was hugely impactful for me, filled with tension like I’d never experienced before and characters I grew to genuinely care for. Rules of Engagement is also one I’ll always recommend for those who like a good courtroom drama. Or you may want to check out PBS’s documentary style TV series Carrier, which follows a six-month deployment of one of the US’s largest nuclear aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz.

But even though media will never stop giving it their best shot, the best way to pay respect is to simply talk to an actual vet. Thank them for their service. Let them know it’s not lost on you that a large part of why we live in a country with as many freedoms as we have and have the ability to try and make the world a better place is because of their efforts. If you don’t know any veterans yourself, there are tons of websites that will put you in touch with them. One of my favorites is amillionthanks.org. In addition to taking donations for America’s troops and families of servicemen and women, one of the services they provide is collecting letters of thanks to be delivered to military local, abroad, or injured in hospitals. It’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to show your support.

Lastly, if you’re having the trouble finding enthusiasm, I highly recommend checking out the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website. The highest honor this country can bestow, awarded for gallantry and bravery in combat at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, is not given lightly. Reading the stories of those who’ve earned it is a revelation and a sobering reminder of the situations veterans are sometimes placed in, as well as the selflessness the best of the best are capable of.

Just looking at the current featured recipient, Sergeant William Shemin, I found this:

…in connection with combat operations against an armed enemy on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France from August 7 to August 9, 1918. Sergeant Shemin, upon three different occasions, left cover and crossed an open space of 150 yards, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded. After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on August 9.

Or this, from the page of Specialist Fourth Class Donald P. Sloat, who was in the US Army during Vietnam:

On the morning of Jan. 17, 1970, Sloat’s squad was conducting a patrol, serving as a blocking element in support of tanks and armored personnel carriers from F Troop in the Que Son valley. As the squad moved through dense up a small hill in file formation, the lead Soldier tripped a wire attached to a hand grenade booby-trap, set up by enemy forces. When the grenade rolled down the hill toward Sloat, he had a choice. He could hit the ground and seek cover, or pick up the grenade and throw it away from his fellow Soldiers. After initially attempting to throw the grenade, Sloat realized that detonation was imminent, and that two or three men near him would be killed or seriously injured if he couldn’t shield them from the blast. In an instant, Sloat chose to draw the grenade to his body, shielding his squad members from the blast, and saving their lives. Sloat’s actions define the ultimate sacrifice of laying down his own life in order to save the lives of his comrades.

This was only two weeks before his 21st birthday.

To see a veteran of military service, especially in uniform, fills me with a pride and admiration in a way few things can. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been in the trenches with bullets blazing around them, sat in a dark control room reading maps on a computer screen, or cooked in the kitchens of an offshore aircraft carrier, they’ve seen and done more than I ever will. They’ve experienced the greatness and diversity this world and its cultures have to offer, as well as worst, most senseless and hateful acts it’s capable of. Their contributions to their country, our allies, and their fellow comrades dwarfs most of ours, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Given my medical history and the weak physical stature it left me with, there was never a chance I’d ever be deemed fit for military duty. Had my life turned out differently, I honestly don’t know if I would have it in me to walk into a recruitment office and enlist, let alone shoot a random enemy or take a bullet to save a comrade. I’d like to think that I’m emotionally and mentally well balanced enough to handle it, and certainly have pride for my country and am not afraid to work hard for my friends and what I believe in. But it’s one of those things that’s impossible to truly know without actually being in the moment. And it could be argued that I’m the person I am today because of my background. If my background had been different, It’s certainly possible that I wouldn’t have the courage for it. I suppose I’ll never know for sure.

So instead, I’d like to ask that we take just a little time today to be thankful for those who don’t get days off like most of us. Those who spend birthdays, Christmases, and anniversaries in a bunker halfway around the world in the midst of people who would sooner shoot at them than ask them for help. Those who see their newborn children for the first time over a Skype call that could go out at any second because they’re connecting to the internet from the middle of an ocean thousands of miles away. And those who wake up day in and day out trying not to think about the possibility that this day could be their last.

To those currently serving, to those who’ve served in the past, and to those service members no longer with us, I say thank you. Thank you for your selflessness, sacrifice, strength, and heroism.

My Top 10 Reads of 2014

Now that I’ve finished this list and am looking back on it, I’m realizing two things. First, I read a lot of books this year with a longer scope than what I’m used to. More than half of the books below take place over several years. This isn’t a good or bad thing, just interesting. Maybe it’s a sign I’m expanding my horizons and am more willing now to put in the time to read things with more scale. I’m ok with this.

The other thing is that I continue to start series way more often than I finish them. 2014 brought me to no less than nine series I’ve started, with another eight to ten that I haven’t started yet but that I’d like to. I’m hoping to make some headway on some of the ones I’m into and am going to try to contain myself to only one or two new ones this year. What is it with genre fiction authors these days that every damn story they write has to be a trilogy?? Talk about first world problems. So many great books, not enough time! Anyway, here are my favorite books I read last year. Enjoy!

10. The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

The Name of the Wind

The first volume in Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy tale came to me highly recommended in the genre fiction scene I follow. That said, it took longer for me to get into and finish The Name of the Wind than most books I read these days. It’s a story that follows one man, Kvothe, as he goes from a sheltered but uncannily talented young boy who loses everything he knows and loves, to a promising magician on a quest for revenge, with all sorts of adventures in between. It’s a long book that requires patience and trust in its author to pay off the carrots he dangles in front of the reader, as it’s blatantly clear from the start this is only the first part of a much larger narrative. If you’re too impatient for the slow burn nature of the storytelling and aren’t willing to put in the time to see the series through (the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, came out in 2011 and the third doesn’t even have a final title, let alone a release date), you may want to pass this one by. But if you’re the type who eats this kind of tome up, there’s an undeniable amount of stuff in here to keep one interested. It’s told by Kvothe himself, years later as he tries to convey his verbal biography to The Chronicler in an effort to record the truth in spite of the rumors that have plagued his legend. Kvothe’s adventures in his youth are interesting in their own right, but Rothfuss never lets us forget the overarching purpose behind his learning, and even when we occasionally return to the quiet bar/inn he now runs as he tries to stay under the radar, it becomes apparent the story is not over for him even in his older years. It’s no quick read, but there’s enough unanswered questions and well-told adventure here to give me faith that the time I put into The Kingkiller Chronicle will be rewarded.

9. Bitter Seeds (Milkweed Triptych #1) by Ian Tregillis (2010)

Bitter Seeds

From the first time I heard of Ian Tregillis’ Milkweek Triptych I knew I had to read it. It’s 1939 and war is imminent in Britain. With the USSR not yet under threat and the US actively staying out of the kurfuffle, Hitler’s Nazi army is growing day by day, getting ever closer to tearing the country, and all of Europe, apart. Germany’s armies are bolstered by supersoldiers they’ve successfully begun engineering after years of human trial-and-error experimentation. These bio-enhanced individuals effectively give the Germans a striketeam of X-Men, with powers ranging from clairvoyance, to invisibility, to super strength, speed, and the ability to throw fireballs.

With no one else to turn to for help against the impending war, the British secret service start a covert operation with the intention of seeking out the country’s long lost guardians of an ancient knowledge. The country’s last remaining warlocks are brought together to conjure and negotiate with extra-dimensional beings called Eidolons for help. The Eidolons are all powerful, and are willing to offer their aid, but their assistance does not come cheap.

If this all sounds like a popcorn flick, you’d be right in thinking that. It totally sounds like fanfic. But the way in which Tregillis tells this tale specifically grounds things and gives the events realism and gravity. The brutal nature of the Nazi experiments on children and adults is not graphic, or even described in detail, but is implied effectively enough that it still made me cringe. The “science” behind giving human beings the powers of supermen by connecting wires and battery packs to their brains and drawing from their own innate abilities is equal parts believable and creepy. The Eidolons are mercurial and unpredictable in form as well as motivation. Their increasing human toll on the British very clearly is meant to convey that they’re messing with the forces of nature, and are only willing to do so as long as they’re benefitting. As negotiations get more unstable and the cost of defending themselves grows to horrendous levels, it brings into question at what point does the cost become too high.

The storytelling itself is a bit uneven. Taking place across the first few years of World War II, Bitter Seeds speeds up and slows down seemingly randomly, but the quiet moments allow us to glimpse the humanity behind the warlocks and supersoldiers. They have their own inner turmoil to struggle with apart from Hitler’s greater ambitions. Going in, I expected Bitter Seeds to be more comic book than it turned out to be, but I was still very pleased with what I found once I set my expectations aside. It’s a supernatural, but still very human, struggle between good and evil, with touches of steampunk and Lovecraft. All in all, it’s simply a great work of historical fiction.

8. Sphere by Michael Crichton (1987)

Sphere

I miss Michael Crichton. I can’t think of another author with as much talent. Already a medical doctor before he even became a popular writer, he went on to find success in movies and TV in addition to continuing to write before he passed away. My only consolation is that I still haven’t read all of his work.

Sphere follows a group of scientists who are brought in by the military to investigate a spherical spaceship submerged deep in the Pacific ocean. What they find within tests not only what they think they know about extraterrestrials but also about their own psyches. It’s classic Crichton, with just enough future tech balanced with actual science to make it extremely believable. However, that science runs rampant throughout its pages but at the end of the day only exists to set a cool stage for a story about humanity and how we behave. To say much more about the story or what the ship ultimately contains would ruin the mystery and sense of discovery. Instead, I’ll just say that if you’re like me and love a lot of other Crichton novels, or just like a great psychological thriller laced with realistic-sounding pseudoscience, Sphere is well worth your time. And if you’ve written it off because you saw that crappy movie adaptation from 1998, come on, you should know better.

7. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (2014)

As You Wish

You like The Princess Bride, don’t you? Of course you do. It’s astonishing that for a movie that was as much of a struggle to get green-lit as it was, it managed to be so funny, loving, adventurous, and beloved that it went on to overshadow its written counterpart so completely. It still resonates deeply with audiences over 27 years later, and in my personal opinion is better than the book in most every way. As You Wish is a closer, more complete look into the film’s creation than we’ve ever gotten before, told by Westley himself, Cary Elwes. It’s a nostalgic look back at how the cast was put together, how he and Mandy Patinkin trained endlessly for “the greatest sword fight of all time,” anecdotes of the cast’s friendship when they weren’t filming, and more. There’s even lots of little inserts and insights from other cast and crew members as well, so we get to hear multiple takes on many aspects of the movie. Like most everyone I know, I adore The Princess Bride, so it’s really no surprise I enjoyed reading this. It gave me warm fuzzies all over again, although the parts about Andre the Giant were super sad as they describe what a happy, friendly person he was despite being in constant pain as a result of his large stature and wrestling career. If you have any love for this movie whatsoever, don’t think, just read.

6. Wool (Silo #1) by Hugh Howey (2012)

Wool Omnibus

The post-apocalyptic, future dystopia genre is pretty crowded these days. It could be argued that Wool’s initial popularity had as much to do with how it was released as it did with its quality as a story, and I can understand that argument. Hugh Howey was one of, if not the, first success stories to come out of Amazon self-publishing, and it was with this very book. Wool is the first chapter in the Silo trilogy, but it was released in five consecutive parts through Amazon in digital-only format. After it got popular, it started selling in full volume and physical formats, and was followed by its prequel, Shift, and sequel, Dust. But for a first-time, unproven author, breaking Wool out into small, cheap, bite-sized chunks gave it an incredibly shallow barrier to entry, and it paid off.

Despite its piecemeal release, Wool still sucked me in with a mysterious premise that runs with the best of them. It’s some point in the distant future. Humanity has been wiped out, and for all the people in the silo know, they’re the only ones left. The silo they call home stands hundreds of floors deep in the desert sands. With socio-economic hierarchies, governmental authorities, and strict rules for population and resource control, they’ve lived this way for generations, and most are perfectly happy with that. However, every once in a while, someone is chosen to go out into the barren, toxic, wasteland above to clean off the cameras that offer a glimpse of the outside. Almost no one questions this tradition, but the ones who do are exiled to the task themselves, and no one who goes out to do this duty ever comes back.

I’m a sucker for big-brother, gears-turning-behind-the-scenes stories. So not only was the premise intriguing to me right off the bat, once small holes in the supposed utopia power structure started emerging, revealing peeks of what was really going on and the possibility of venturing out of the silo to discover more pieces to the puzzle, I was hooked. Wool is self-contained enough that you could read it on its own and totally ignore Shift and Dust, but with what I’ve seen I won’t be able to resist learning all I can about how this world came to be, who’s running it, and why.

5. The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2012)

The Long Earth

Pratchett and Baxter are both revered authors in their respective genres of fantasy and hard scifi. The Long Earth doesn’t exactly meet in the middle; it’s more on the scifi side than the fantasy. But as someone who’s not a huge Discworld fanatic (*hands in nerd card*) and for whom Baxter’s books are usually too abstract, this book hooked me a lot more than one might expect.

In 2015, someone discovers a curiously simple device, quietly invented and released on the internet by a man who’s no longer around, that allows people to “step” into the oft-hypothesized parallel worlds in the next dimension over. If you’re not familiar with the theory of multiverses, or parallel universes, that’s ok. The story isn’t about the science. The idea is explained clearly and then doesn’t get in the way. The Long Earth is about how this discovery changes human life forever in almost every imaginable way; geography, economy, business, politics, even psychology. In the years following the discovery of these parallel Earths, humanity’s attempts to colonize them with abandon wreck havoc with global society as the powers that be back home try to maintain some semblance of structure on what becomes known as “Datum Earth.” In the midst of it all, an artificial intelligence named Lobsang tracks down one man who is able to step without the aid of a stepper and recruits him for a journey to step farther than anyone has gone before.

Everything about this book grabbed me and didn’t let go. I was fascinated not only at how this expansion would affect human life as we know it, but also to discover how many other Earths are out there (if there even is a finite amount) and what sorts of alternate evolutionary developments might have resulted in them. The ending got weird in a way that I should’ve expected out of Stephen Baxter, and I’m told the next book in the series gets away from the hook that brought me in, but I still enjoyed every bit of The Long Earth and look forward to reading the next in the series, The Long War.

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

The Night Circus

The Night Circus a wondrous debut novel about mystery, magic and love, creating a setting so intriguing and mystical that I wanted to visit it myself. Le Cirque des Reves simply appears one night, with no warning or advertising. Filled with unique sights and sounds the likes of which no one has ever seen, the patrons pack in from all over to witness its treasures. Little do they know, the entire circus is merely a live stage for an ongoing duel of showmanship between Celia and Marco, two magicians who’ve been raised since childhood to confront each other for the amusement of their parents. Inevitably, groaningly, Celia and Marco end up in love and dance around this forbidden affection for most of their adult lives.

I have major problems with the love story in The Night Circus. It’s not because I’m an unfeeling robot (but if anyone tells you I’m not, they’re lying), it’s because it’s unrealistic. They barely spend sufficient time together to let even a school-kid crush develop, let alone a full-on obsession, sometimes going years without spending time in each other’s company. Neither one of them has much of a social life and the idea of love at first sight has always struck me as pretty absurd in general. That said, the romance is surprisingly, refreshingly, understated. And as implausibly as it develops, their mutual situations – controlled by their father figures, forced into a contest they neither understand nor have a say in, inescapably bound to the fate of the circus and its performers – make it seem less unlikely than I initially gave it credit for. It ends up being just enough to justify itself, as for better or for worse, neither the climax of this tale nor the fate of Le Cirque des Reves would be possible without their devotion to each other.

My initial misgivings about Celia and Marco aside, everything Morgenstern builds up around their attraction is interestingly crafted and done in such a way that is equal parts believable and surreal. The group that meets in secret to create the circus and go on to run and perform in it are eccentric and likeable. I wanted to learn more of their backstories and who made them the individuals they were. Le Cirque’s most dedicated fans, who call themselves reveurs and travel to each new stop as often as they are able, speak to its powerful allure and are easily relatable in today’s obsessive fan-based culture. The descriptions of the various tents and spectacles, and of Celia and Marco’s abilities, walked the line between reality and impossible fantasy perfectly. They filled me with delight and easily allowed me to imagine it all, but with an eerie, dreamlike slant. Every image I conjured was in black and white and faded away into shadow at the edges. I am not a creative or imaginative person, and it’s rare for a book to draw me into its world so fully, but The Night Circus did exactly that.

3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)

HP Prisoner of Azkaban

I won’t go into much detail with this one, as I’m probably one of the last people on the planet who hasn’t read these books yet. Harry’s first two years at Hogwart’s were great, memorable stories, but they were still very much children’s books. Prisoner of Azkaban is still firmly in that realm, but it’s a bit longer, a bit darker, and digs a little deeper into the backstory, to the point where we’re just starting to see that things are going to get real for Harry and his friends. To clarify, I’ve seen all of the movies so I already know the full picture, but I’m enjoying going back and reading the extra detail and expanded narrative of the books. This is my favorite Potter book so far. Rowling does a great job in making the entire arc of the series fit together naturally and I really enjoyed learning more of the intricacies of these characters, their motivations, and how their relationships are changing and uncovering. I’m looking forward to continuing with the rest of the books and seeing how it all plays out and fits together in its original written form.

2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Ender's Game

I’ll admit that, like the HP books, I committed the cardinal sin with Ender’s Game and didn’t read it until I’d seen the movie. In my defense, after reading the book, I thought the movie was very well done compared to most book-to-movie adaptations. The story of Ender, an outcast by the very nature of his birth and raised expressly for the purpose of saving the human race, is just as engrossing now as it must have been when it was first written almost thirty years ago.

Any sympathy you might feel for Ender and his troubled youth quickly goes away as he learns to cope with those who would do him harm by returning their hostility in kind. As he gets shipped off to Battle School to train for the inexorable battle with the buggers that attacked Earth so many years earlier, he shatters every record and becomes the best leader in history. As much as I liked Ender and congratulated his accomplishments, my sympathy returned as the morality of his situation crept into the story. When all you know is war and the reason you’re so good at being a commander is because you hit your enemy back so hard they’ll never want to mess with you again, what kind of a childhood does that leave you, and what kind of person do you grow into? It’s a bittersweet story that only gets heavier when the true nature of Ender’s training and the irreversible consequences it brings about are revealed. I loved Ender’s Game, but it left me in a not-entirely-comfortable place, and I want to read the rest of the series, if only to see Ender’s adventures lead to a more satisfying and fulfilling closure.

1. The Martian by Andy Weir (2014)

The MartianAnother first-time author, Andy Weir has written a space geek’s dream novel. It’s science fiction, but takes place in present day and is the most believable, riveting struggle between man and science I’ve read since Jurassic Park. NASA astronaut Mark Watney is a botanist on a voyage to Mars with his fellow crewmates. While there, a severe dust storm forces them to evacuate the mission. In the chaos, he’s swept away and believed to have died, while his shipmates barely escape after an attempt to locate him. Finding himself alive but alone and stranded on Mars, he’s left to fend for himself and figure out how to survive until his presence is discovered and a rescue attempt can be made. Thus begins a months-long struggle to use his knowledge of biology and botany, along with the life-support equipment his crew brought with them that was never intended for long-term use, to live on another planet.

Weir is on record as wanting to be as accurate as possible in his depiction of how one might survive on Mars, and it’s very clear he’s done his homework. As Watney keeps logs of his trials and tribulations, he goes into meticulous detail about how he’s harvesting nutrients out of the few plants he has and working his tools to serve sometimes very different purposes from which they were intended. It’s utterly gripping, not just from a survivalist perspective, but from a technological perspective as well. Some of the descriptions get a little tedious at times, but in the end they only serve to make the story more believable, and they’re balanced by Weir’s, or Watney’s rather, writing style. Watney has a great sense of humor, and is just as cynical as I am. His journals are filled with sarcasm, jokes, and other nuances that make him extremely likable and relatable as a character. As an example, the first sentence of the book is literally, “I’m pretty much fucked.” He’s extremely smart (you’d have to be to figure out how to live on Mars) but he’s also a regular Joe. He’s an extreme underdog given his situation and you want to root for him. As well as he does, he also can’t seem to catch a break, and his wits and survival instincts are tested to their limits more than a few times. In order to get off Mars and rejoin the rest of his fellow humans, he has to do more than even he expects. The Martian is a tense, exciting story of triumph that never lets up, told with a fun, realistic flair and so much captivating technical detail that it would make any NASA or science junkie salivate. It’s one of the quickest reads I’ve had in a long time, not because it’s short, but because I simply couldn’t put it down.

My Top 10 Games of 2014

For me, personally, 2014 definitely had a few high points, but there were also a fair number of things that took a lot out of me. I managed to do some traveling, have some fun new experiences, and make some new friends, and those are always great things. But the year brought with it frequent stress, and the low points, due to both my own mistakes and some things out of my control, were low enough and frequent enough that I’m glad to see the year come to a close and am trying to make 2015 a year of growth.

In the gaming world things weren’t much better. More than a few high profile, big-budget triple-A titles ended up falling far short of expectations. While some merely failed to deliver on promises of scope and content, others were released in such a ridiculously broken state as to render them nigh unplayable. Most disturbingly though, I can’t recall a year that caused me to look upon my favorite hobby with more shame than this one. What began as an arguably misguided but passionate and well-intentioned movement against corruption in games media degenerated into an effective banner for despicable, narrow-minded, misogynistic hate-mongering. I’ve said it before elsewhere and will say it again here. The fact that some people continue to doubt women in their fandoms for no other reason than that they’re female, let alone have the audacity to threaten them (or gay, trans, or any other non-straight white male oriented gamer) with violence, is inexcusable and deeply troubling. It’s been the reason I’ve rarely had any desire to play a game online for years, and only shows how little we’ve grown as a community. God forbid anyone should try to open our minds to new gaming experiences, challenge us to think about the social implications of what we create, or encourage us to treat each other with some basic human fucking decency. Bah!

All that said, there were still some great things about the last 12 months that managed to shine through the ugliness. Despite some of their colleagues stepping away from the industry (and really, who can blame them?), there remains some strong female voices out there continuing to make themselves heard in the midst of it all, making games, writing about games and game creators, and in the wider geek culture scene, and that’s profoundly encouraging. I’m also hopeful the discussions that have arisen in the wake of such hatred will force more to take notice and strive to make a change or speak out against it. In more inspiring news, as a community we came together in late October to raise more than $5.4 million for children’s hospitals around the country in the annual Extra-Life for Kids charity event, which I was proud to be a part of for the second year running. Both E3 and Sony’s PSX event in early December heralded some incredible game announcements I’m really looking forward to in 2015. And while few would claim 2014 was one of the best years in gaming, there were lots of wonderful surprises that rose to the top of the pile. So without further ado, here are the games I enjoyed most this year.

10. Threes! (iOS/Android, Sirvo LLC)

Threes!_app_iconForget 2048 and all the other copycats. The original Threes! is the puzzle game you want to play. Everything from the deceptively simplistic way it teaches you how to slide like-numbered tiles together, to the minimalist aesthetic, to the light and inviting soundtrack, to the quick, silky smooth movement proves this is the superior experience. Threes! is as welcoming as a game can get, luring you in with its cute, charming faces and personalities that respond to your movements – or lack thereof.

It seems easy enough, just match the numbers together to make higher ones; a neat little math game any number geek can get into. It wasn’t until I saw my initial scores, then looked at the leaderboards and stared in confusion at the impossibly high scores of my peers that I wanted to dig deeper. Once I learned some strategy and started being able to deconstruct how the game works, I almost felt like I was breaking the rules and was able to rack up higher and higher scores. At that moment, when the genius of its algorithm was revealed to me like the code of the Matrix, Threes! changed from a delightful little five minute distraction perfectly tailored for smartphones to a deeply satisfying 20+ minute per round strategy title. It remains a game I keep loaded on not just my daily use Android, but also my old iPhone 4 and iPad 2 so I can pull it out at any time for a round of number matching.

Threes screenshots

9. P.T. (PSN, 7780s Studios)

PT title picThere are those who don’t consider P.T. a game, and in some ways I can understand why. There’s only one environment; a regular, ordinary, L-shaped hallway. You’ll walk down this hallway several dozens times before you see all there is to see. Your interactions are limited to being able to zoom in slightly on things you want a closer look at, and….that’s about it. Heck, even the game’s name stands for Playable Teaser. But as a free interactive announcement for a new Silent Hill game from the mind of Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, it’s incredibly effective at selling you on the idea.

This hallway may look like any number of hallways you’ve seen in any number of houses you’ve seen your entire life, but P.T. is quick to layer on heaps of atmosphere and unease. Nuggets of backstory are sparingly doled out via a static-y FM radio. Each trip down the hallway incorporates subtle changes that must be meticulously searched for to find. The dark, foreboding lighting, the rain storm outside, the subliminal messages I could swear I’m hearing and seeing, all make the mere act of exploring such a small environment increasingly unsettling. Are the eyes in those photos following me? Is someone outside looking at me? Did that scratchy radio voice just tell me to look behind me or did I imagine it? Even though I never knew what to expect with each subsequent trip, the nuances messed with my senses and made it extremely easy to buy into P.T.‘s world.

The experience isn’t perfect. In order to progress with each pass through the hall, you’re basically required to figure out the specific set of movements or the one obscure thing to look at to trigger the next iteration. You’re rarely given hints as to what those might be, so it can be frustratingly obtuse at times when you think you’ve looked at everything and moved every which way and nothing seems to be changing. But once I did find each trigger action and the creepiness ramped up again, the payoff was always well worth it. Whether it’s a game or not, P.T. is the most intense, unnerving teaser trailer I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never cared about any of the Silent Hill games, and Silent Hills may not be anything like this, but I’m sure as hell paying attention now.

PT screen shot

8. Destiny (PS4/XOne, Bungie)

Destiny box artI went back and forth about Destiny for quite a while. On paper it sounds incredible. A Borderlands-like open-world FPS loot fest from the company that brought us Halo? Yes please! Destiny should’ve been the best game of the year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Maybe it’s that I’ve already played two Borderlands games and I’ve had my fill of this type of game. Maybe it’s that the loot, while enticing, doesn’t come nearly as fast and furious as the constant stream of new gear from Borderlands or Diablo. Maybe it’s the fact that the missions are boring and the story failed to keep me interested. Or maybe it’s simply that it was so ridiculously hyped and had the hugely popular Halo pedigree to live up to that the expectations were unreasonably high. Whatever the case, Destiny was not the game it should have – or could have – been.

That being said, it’s what Bungie did right that still earns it praise. New loot is more sparse than what we’ve grown accustomed to, but the gear you do get feels more carefully and deliberately crafted, making it feel more rewarding and meaningful. Even though I had trouble remembering or even caring where I was going and why, actually getting there, the minute to minute gameplay, just felt right. It’s the old idea of the journey being its own reward. The shooting is smooth and polished to a degree that every headshot feels not only easy to pull off but also incredibly satisfying. The environments too often feel desolate and barren, but the speeder bike helps with that, and when I did get back to the action, I was excited to jump back in the fray. Every time a random public event showed up, it felt impactful and I couldn’t help but smile as I made my way over a hill to see other players descend from wherever they happened to be in the map so we could join together to fend off wave after wave of Fallen. The rousing orchestral soundtrack, clearly born from the minds who brought us the Halo score, brings it all together and never failed to make me feel like what I was doing was epic. To top it all off, the game looks absolutely stunning. It made me wish there were more going on in the environments. Sadly, they’re mostly static and lifeless. It’s disappointing Destiny failed to live up to its potential, but when it’s on, it’s exceedingly fun. And isn’t that the whole point?

Destiny screenshot

7. Bayonetta 2 (Wii U, Platinum Games)

Bayonetta 2 box artBayonetta 2, like its predecessor, is batshit insane in the best kind of way you could only expect from Platinum Games. The first game in the series was already full of the best character action combat out there, and bravo to Nintendo for having the guts to support its sequel when no one else would. Otherwise this game wouldn’t even exist.

If you play Bayonetta 2 and are able to explain the story with any competency or detail by the end, let me know. It’s so off the wall and convoluted I stopped trying to pay attention. I’m also not entirely comfortable with the way the main protagonist is hyper sexualized. She’s a strong, independent gal, to be sure, and one can’t argue the fact that she’s extremely empowered. But that doesn’t mean the camera has to slowly leer over every curve of her body like she’s sponsored by Maxim magazine. One of the first shots in the game has you watching as the camera zooms in and slowly pans down her frontside and between her crotch. Come on Platinum, really???

Assuming the fact that the cinematography looks like it was done by a 13-year old doesn’t turn you away however, what you’ll find in Bayonetta 2 is some of the smoothest and well-executed combat you’ve ever played, in some of the most outlandish, ridiculous settings you’ve ever seen. The first level has the title character facing off against hordes of horse-like hellspawn on top of a fighter jet flying through downtown, followed by a battle with a giant dragon climbing up the side of a tower. And it only gets crazier from there. The combat includes enough combos to learn, upgrades to purchase, and difficulty levels to satisfy any skill level. If you want to shoot for 100% perfectly-executed combos with every encounter on the hardest difficulty level, have at it. But for those of us with less than savant-like dexterity, the witch time mechanic is easy to pull off and slows things down enough that just mashing away on the attack buttons is surprisingly effective, and still results in enough flashiness to elicit a maniacal grin. Not since God of War III has character action combat left me more satisfied and blown away at its bombast.

Bayonetta 2 screen shot

6. Alien: Isolation (PS4/XOne, The Creative Assembly)

Alien Isolation box artConsidering that the majority of games to come out of Creative Assembly are from the Total War series of strategy titles, the fact that Alien: Isolation is as good as it is is pretty shocking. After the massive disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines, I was prepared to completely ignore Isolation. It wasn’t until it came out and the reviews started hitting that I was ready to give it a chance. While Colonial Marines was an action FPS intended to be a spiritual sequel to Aliens, Isolation goes in a different direction entirely, and is all the better for it. Using the original Alien movie as inspiration, this is a survival horror game that manages to not only distance itself from the game prior, but knocks the look and feel of that first film completely out of the park.

The industrial, 80s-future aesthetic of the ship, CRT-looking design of the interfaces and monitors, and sound design all invoke the film perfectly, and do an excellent job of setting a creepy, unnerving atmosphere. By the time the title creature was revealed I was fully invested and sufficiently terrified. The fact that the alien cannot be fought or defended against, only hid from, ensures my tension levels never fall too low as I slink around the ship from one area to the next. When the alien does find me and I hear its deep footsteps getting louder and louder, only to turn around and find it barreling toward me, ready to strike, is incredibly intense.

I’m not even close to finishing it yet, so I can’t speak to the game’s length. If it’s as long as I’ve heard it’s very possible the impact won’t last all the way through for me, but so far Alien: Isolation is more than enough to wash away the bad taste of Colonial Marines.

Alien Isolation screen shot

5. Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4/XOne, Blizzard Entertainment)

Diablo III Ultimate Evil Ed boxThat’s right, I’m putting Diablo III on my top games list two years in a row. In my defense, the Ultimate Evil Edition is more than just the previous game with the Reaper of Souls expansion bolted on. The visuals have been enhanced for the new generation of consoles, the difficulty tiers revamped, the brutally fun Crusader class has been added, and the new adventure mode presents an end game that is so much more satisfying than simply replaying the campaign over and over again to continue your level grind. Sending you to one of the maps with a specific goal focuses your attention and adds a quest-like feel to the progression. You’re not just playing for new loot and experience anymore, you’re doing it to check off tasks in a list, and we all know by now how addicting that is. As you move through each quest, random side chests and rescue quests will present themselves, further increasing the drip feed of accomplishment. Slaying demonspawn by the thousands, gaining experience points by the millions, entering deeper and deeper levels of Nephalem Rifts and Greater Rifts, sorting through and equipping endless amounts of ever-stronger gear and enhancement gems, watching your character look more and more aggressive, Diablo just keeps getting more and more fun. Between World Of Warcraft and Diablo, Blizzard have proven themselves the unquestionable masters of addictive loot/quest grind, not to mention art design. If there’s anyone that can make Diablo look like a pussycat, it’s Maltheal. I mean, just look at him with those hand-scythes and wispy skeletal wings. So cool.

Diablo III UEEd Maltheal

4. Monument Valley (iOS/Android, USTWO)

Monument Valley cover artI couldn’t be more pleased that mobile games are getting so good that they can compete with full-scale $60 console releases in terms of quality. Monument Valley is a puzzle platformer that tasks you with getting from point A to point B, but getting there is anything but clear cut. The self-contained environments are set up like M.C. Escher paintings. As you manipulate platforms and gateways to guide your cone-cap-endowed friend to the exit platform, you’ll constantly be reminded that the laws of physics don’t really apply in this surreal world. None of the levels get difficult to the point of frustration, but there is a definite retraining of the brain that must take place as you shift and rotate pieces of a structure to reveal new paths that shouldn’t be possible. The art design and soundtrack blend beautifully to create an atmosphere that is simultaneously eerie, lonely, and enticing. It all comes together in a wonderful, intriguing adventure in non-Euclidean geometry. It can be finished in a mere hour or two at most, but at $4 for 10 levels, plus $2 for another 8 in the Forgotten Shores DLC expansion, it’s one the best values in gaming at the moment.

Monument Valley screen shots

3. Shovel Knight (PC/Wii U/3DS, Yacht Club Games)

Shovel Knight coverAnyone over a certain age remembers going back to that game they adored as a kid and thinking, “huh, am I playing the wrong game or was I just crazy back then?” Playing Shovel Knight is like playing that beloved game from your youth and having it be exactly as amazing as you remember it. It’s the tight, focused gameplay, epic boss battles, and energizing chiptune soundtrack of games like Mega Man and Duck Tales without the 8-bit era annoyances your rose-colored nostalgia glasses seem to forget. The graphics are old-school pixely but detailed and colorful in a way the NES could never have pulled off. It’s exceptionally challenging at times, but rather than feeling cheap, it always managed to make me believe I had the skills necessary to conquer it. That I could learn the enemy strategies and patterns, I could discover the weaknesses, and I could execute the timing and the techniques to take down every boss. For someone like me who grew up playing crushingly difficult platformers on the NES, a sublimely smooth difficulty curve like this is the best kind of carrot on a stick. These days it’s a thing so many retro-focused games try for and fail to pull off, but Shovel Knight absolutely nails it. Quite simply, this is retro 2D platforming modernized to perfection.

Shovel Knight screen shot

2. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4/XOne, Monolith Productions)

Shadow of Mordor box artNot since Darksiders has a game taken elements from other games and so expertly meshed them together. But Monolith didn’t stop there; they took that formula, which would have already made for a great game, and layered an entirely new mechanic on top of it all to elevate Shadow of Mordor into something greater than the sum of its parts.

The mission structure and minute to minute gameplay here are straight out of Assassin’s Creed, but there’s lots of little touches that make simply traversing the map and tracking down side missions and collectibles so much more enjoyable. Every item and side mission is marked on your map, and rather than forcing you to meticulously search for every plant and hunting mission, little pop-up messages present themselves when you’re on your way somewhere and happen to cross by them. Not only is there a fast travel system, one of the first abilities you unlock is a burst of speed when you hop over a rock or down from a ledge. Conveniences like these ensure that going from one side of the map to the other and searching for every item never becomes tedious.

The combat is ripped right from the Batman: Arkham games, except instead of punching and kicking enemies into submission (because, you know, Batman doesn’t kill), your character is armed with a sword, dagger, and a bow and arrow, and isn’t afraid to eviscerate every uruk he sees with them in a merciless display of brutality. It’s a lot more violent than the Batman combat, but incredibly satisfying. The button prompts and transitions between moves are smooth and seamless, and as you unlock more abilities, you gain more versatility in your ability to take down the hordes of Mordor in flashy new ways. By the end of the game you’re pretty overpowered, but it’s so damn fun that I was always enthusiastic about jumping right in the middle of a pack. Even the stealth combat is skillfully executed, if you’ll forgive the pun, and sneaking behind a powerful uruk captain or pouncing on him from above to deliver a killing blow never got old.

Tying all this together is Monolith’s Nemesis system. Disappointingly absent from the PS3/X360 versions of the game, this system so fundamentally changes the way you play to the point that it makes the previous console versions pale in comparison. How many times have you continually lost to the same enemy over and over, but you keep coming back for more until you finally conquer him? The Nemesis system personalizes this loop by making every enemy unique, with a set look and personality that persists until he dies. Every captain is lurking around on the map somewhere, waiting for you to find him. When you do, you’ll get a slow-mo briefing with his name and title, and he’ll taunt you. Every enemy you fail to take down will remember the encounter. Not only do they remember it, you’ll see the wounds you gave them the next time you meet them on the field as they spout more abuse your way. You can look into the minds of certain enemies to gain intel on every captain’s strengths, weaknesses, and fears, and use these to plan your attack. If you’re killed by a lowly no-name uruk, they’ll bend down and tell you how weak and pathetic you are, then you’ll see them get promoted within the army of Mordor, gaining a title and respect among his peers. To watch an enemy get better armor, become more powerful, and get promoted up through the ranks because he took me out, only to encounter him again and have him laugh in my face about it; it makes for an incredibly powerful motivator for coming back to the game. It’s so good that it actually overshadows the main story. I cared less about seeing it through to the conclusion and more about systematically going after every captain who’d done me wrong, then targeting the elite captains once I’d cut down his henchmen. It’s a little disappointing the story isn’t more interesting, but every time I challenged a captain in battle I stopped caring. At that moment every other enemy was insignificant and any other mission I was on was forgotten about. The only thing on my mind in that moment was having my sweet sweet revenge and holding it over his ugly uruk face.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor™_20140923180750

1. South-Park: The Stick of Truth (PS3/X360, Obsidian Entertainment)

Stick of Truth box artI wanted The Stick of Truth to be good for so long, but as the years went on and the stories of it’s hellish development stacked on heavier and heavier, plus the fact that every single South Park game to this point have been steaming piles of crap, I’d resigned to myself that there was no way short of a miracle it was going to be a quality product. But one thing The Stick of Truth had going for it that no other South Park game before did was the direct involvement of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. This, combined with the guidance of Ubisoft creative consultants, seems to have been the secret sauce that has allowed it to overcome all odds and live up to its full potential.

If you’re not into the mature cartoon then you’re not going to find much to like here. But if you are, then The Stick of Truth is exactly the game you want out of the franchise. The light RPG mechanics aren’t especially deep, and it gets a bit repetitive toward the end as you get strong enough to take down pretty much every enemy without much trouble, but fun new gear, items, and spells come fast and furious, and the combat is enjoyable and quick enough to not overstay its welcome. Most importantly, all the South Park-ness wrapped around the combat is top notch. Everything you love about the antics of Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny are here. Underpants Gnomes, Crab People, Al Gore, Mr. Hanky, the complete irreverence for itself and willingness to make fun of anyone and anything. Rather than fall into the trap of simply reusing the same jokes you’ve heard for over a decade, Matt and Trey have found new ways to package the material at the heart of those jokes in ways that make them seem fresh and apply in a video game environment. They have a knack for knowing what they’re making fun of. They’re gamers, and that’s obvious when you see them ripping on trope after trope. South Park‘s lovable kids are basically playing a Lord of the Rings-style RPG with each other, with cardboard forts, homemade costumes, and fart magic. As you would expect, their quest not only grows to encompass all kinds of insanity from aliens to Nazi zombies, but manages to push the envelope in terms of raunchiness in several places. Again, if you’re not into the show’s brand of humor, you won’t appreciate the places the story goes. Even as someone who has a very broad and open-minded sense of humor, there were points when I was rendered speechless with shock and disbelief, even as I was laughing my ass off.

To top it all off, Obsidian nails the look of the show exquisitely. There are slight performance issues, as every transition to a new area is met with stuttering, but aside from that every animation, piece of art, and spell effect looks like you’re basically controlling one long episode of the show. And then there’s the Canada level. I don’t want to spoil it here for those who might not have played it yet, but oh man is that Canada area incredible. I could go on, but basically if you love video games and love South Park, you owe it to yourself to play The Stick of Truth. It’s the masterpiece game the show has always deserved, fully realized at long last.

Stick of Truth screen shot

2014’s 2013 Game of the Year

Gone Home (PC, The Fullbright Company)

Gone Home coverI’d heard a lot about Gone Home when it was released in the Fall of 2013 but didn’t get around to playing it until January, which is a bit of a shame because it undoubtedly would have made the cut for my Best of 2013 list. Like P.T., Gone Home is more interactive story than game.

You play a girl who’s arrived home from Europe to find her house empty. Left to search the for her parents and younger sister alone, with a nighttime rainstorm outside, you quickly get the sense that this is a horror game and that things will get creepy at any moment, but that doesn’t happen. Nothing jumps out at you, there are no ghosts and no unexplained phenomena. But that doesn’t mean all is well with this family, and while there are no horror goings-on per se, there still remains an atmosphere of dark tension that manages to be slightly unsettling. There are no big action scenes or “ah-ha!” moments. You’re left to spend as much time in this eerily-lit house as you want, and interact with as much or as little of it as you want, but you’re greatly rewarded for looking in every nook and cranny. Set in the 90s, the house is chock full of things to see and interact with. You’ll read notes left on tables, listen to cassette mix tapes made by your sister, and smile as you pick up rows of X-Files VHS tapes as you piece the story together.

You’ll learn about the lives of this family, and in doing so you’ll gain insight into their fears, frustrations, hopes and dreams. It’s nothing on the scale of battling aliens or solving complex puzzles, but that’s the point. Gone Home is a story about the personal, the moments in our lives that mean nothing to most people, but that mean everything to us. Gaining a glimpse into the lives of this normal, everyday family, especially as someone who spent my most formative years in the time period the game is set in, easily took me back to my own youthful moments that in the grand scheme of things don’t mean anything. But to me, they mean everything about who I was then and who I became. In Gone Home, the most touching story is your sister’s, an awkward teenager discovering new things about herself and who she is. Saying much more than that would be too much; suffice it to say that by the time you get to the end you’ll realize the story you’ve been uncovering has culminated only minutes before you arrived at the house, and it left me joyful and sad at the same time. It’s a deeply personal tale, full of heart and heavy on the feels. For anyone who loves a subtle, quiet, yet lovingly put together experience, exploring Gone Home is a wonderful way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Gone Home screen shot

Honorable Mention

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (PS4/XOne, Sledgehammer Games)

COD Ad Warfare box artI pretty much wrote off the entire Call of Duty franchise after Black Ops 2. I had absolutely no desire to play COD: Ghosts, and didn’t plan on playing this installment either. But Sledgehammer Games, consisting of many of the minds who made the first Modern Warfare so new and fresh, have somehow managed to give the modern military shooter new life yet again. It’s nothing that completely changes the game, but the new abilities afforded by the futuristic exo-suits give you more mobility in combat, and the near-future weapons, grenade types, and drone options bring just enough newness and “oooh shiny!” to the series that I enjoyed Advanced Warfare more than any Call of Duty game in years.

Even the story somehow had me more invested than I expected. There’s still plenty of anti-terrorist military psycho-babble, but there’s also a bit of a Metal Gear Solid vibe added to the mix as Atlas Corporation, a massive private military corporation, takes center stage in combating the evils of the world, even if its means may not justify the ends. Jonathan Irons, voiced by a creepily lifelike Kevin Spacey, turns in an excellent performance as the company’s CEO, and the situations you’re placed in throughout the game somehow manage to be thrilling and powerful without falling into the last few iterations’ dull philosophy of “everything is exploding and everyone is dying around you all the time because holy shit everything is crazy!” The only problem with Advanced Warfare being as good as it managed to be is I’m not really sure where the series can go from here and still be as impactful. Activision is showing no signs of ever letting the yearly COD cycle end, so we’ll know soon if they can keep this up.

COD Advanced Warfare screenshot

Extra-Life for Kids 2014

Last year I had a great time participating in a wonderful charity event held by gamers across the country called Extra-Life. It’s where gamers come together to play games for 24 hours straight and raise money for children’s hospitals of their choosing. Ranging from video games, to board games, to card games, to role-playing games and everything in between, last year me and over 38,000 others raised over $3.8 million for kids. It’s something I’d wanted to participate in for a long time given my own personal history, and it felt really great joining together with a bunch of my closest friends, doing what I love to help such a worthy cause.

This year I’ll be at it again. Like before, I’ll be raising donations for Rainbow Babies and Children hospital in Cleveland, OH. I won’t have as elaborate of a set up as last year, with the live video streams, but with the PS4’s Twitch streaming option and my own dabbling in PC streaming to Twitch I may give it a shot on my own. I’m getting a little later of a start this year than I did last year so I’m setting my goal a little more conservatively, but I can always raise it if the donations start pouring in.

Which only leaves the question of what to play. I’ve been thinking I’d like to use the opportunity this year to play some of my backlog. There’s plenty of series I’m woefully behind on, and several that I haven’t been able to touch at all. This is the list of what I’m considering playing, in loose alphabetical order, with obligatory flavor comments. Many of these series are so long that I’ll hardly be able to get through one game let alone the whole franchise, but I’m just thinking out loud for now, and I’m open to suggestions or requests. There’s plenty more games I’d like to play, but i’m specifically focusing on franchises or sequels here. Also, it’s entirely possible that I could start off plowing through one of these series and then switching to something more mindless in the wee hours of the morning as my eyelids get heavier and heavier and my reflexes stop doing what I tell them to.

On second thought, this list is way longer than I anticipated. Anyone have any suggestions for narrowing it down?

  • Zero Escape Series (9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors & Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward)
  • Amnesia: The Dark Descent & Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (these would make great late night games)
  • Assassin’s Creed series (Brotherhood, Revelations, ACIII, & Black Flag all remain untouched on my shelf, the latter two still in their shrink wrap)
  • Batman: Arkham series (I almost left this off since I’ve finished Asylum and am on the fence about playing Origins, but I really want to play Arkham City, so maybe…)
  • Borderlands series (played through the first, but didn’t stick with the sequel)
  • Chrono series (that’s right, I still haven’t played through Chrono Trigger, or Chrono Cross. I’m a little ashamed of this)
  • Crysis series (I own all three, haven’t played any of them)
  • Darksiders series (again, played through the first, didn’t stick with the sequel)
  • Dead Space series (I’ve finished only the first of three)
  • Souls series (do I dare pick up Demon’s Souls yet again, and should I even bother with Dark Souls?)
  • Mother series (Earthbound on Wii U Virtual Console and English-patched ROM of Mother 3)
  • Fallout series (specifically 3 and New Vegas. Yeah I know, there’s enough content in one of them alone to last four years of Extra-Life events, but it still counts)
  • Fatal Frame series (another great late-night spooky contender)
  • Fear Effect series
  • Final Fantasy series (my deep pile of shame includes IV, V, VI, IX, the XIII trilogy, & Tactics. Plus I’d like to play X in HD)
  • Gears of War (again, own the first three, only played through the first)
  • Golden Sun series (I really should pick up a copy of the third game in this franchise)
  • Grandia series (really only interested in the first three)
  • Half-Life series (haven’t touched a single one of them, unless you count Portal, and I don’t)
  • Halo series (six main entries, I’ve played half of the first)
  • ICO/Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection (because of course this counts)
  • inFamous series
  • Jak & Daxter Collection
  • Lego games (up for consideration: Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Marvel Super Heroes, and maybe Batman. I’ve already finished Indiana Jones and Star Wars)
  • Lunar series (Silver Star Story and Eternal Blue. These are added on a whim, as I’ve played both of them several times over, but goddamn are they good. I’d love to play them again)
  • Mario & Luigi series (Superstar Saga, Partners in Time, Bowser’s Inside Story, & Dream Team)
  • Mass Effect series
  • Mega Man series (another fun entry. I’ve finished a few of them, but this would be a fun marathon)
  • Mega Man X series (see above)
  • Sonic the Hedgehog series (by which I mean 1-3. You know, the only good ones)
  • Castlevania series (in the same vein as Mega Man. I’m specifically thinking of the first four for the NES & SNES, Symphony of the Night, and maybe the GBA games)
  • Metal Gear Solid (of the five, I’ve only played 4 to completion)
  • Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light
  • Metroid series (I’ve finished all of them except Prime 2: Echos and Prime 3: Corruption. and no, Other M doesn’t count. Period.)
  • Ninja Gaiden series (I’m thinking specifically of Sigma, Sigma 2, and Dragon Sword)
  • No More Heroes 1 & 2
  • Penny Arcade Adventures 2, 3, & 4
  • Persona 3 and Persona 4 (see comments above for Fallout series)
  • Pikmin series (never touched any of them, but own all three)
  • Ratchet & Clank series (HD Collection, Future: A Crack in Time, and Into the Nexus)
  • Saints Row: The Third & Saints Row IV
  • Sly Cooper Collection & Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time
  • Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (this counts because it’s a collection on one disc and there are franchises within it. Full list of games here)
  • Suikoden series (the only flaw in this contender is that I only own 1 and 3, and 2 isn’t available digitally or without spending an ass-load of money on eBay. Get this on PSN Sony!!)
  • Contra series (meaning the first three on NES & SNES. That would be awesome, right? And theoretically wouldn’t take long)
  • Super Mario series (to the exclusion of the New Super Mario Bros games, I’m thinking 1, 2, 3, World,  Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy, and Galaxy 2. Maybe Mario Land 1 & 2 on Game Boy. I’ve finished all the above except Sunshine and Galaxy 2)
  • Zelda series (focusing on the ones I’ve passed up, so Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons, Spirit Tracks, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword)

Depression and Gratitude

There’s been a lot of talk about depression in the news the past few weeks. The death of Robin Williams shocked everyone and prompted all kinds of people, including myself, to think about situations like his more than they probably had in some time.

Mr. Williams was, without a doubt, one of the funniest comedians I’ve ever seen. His lightning-fast, always-on comedic genius covered everything from the latest political strife, to relationships, to the random miniscule details of the world around him. He was a master of both vulgar, quick-witted improv and incredibly touching moments of sweetness. He even had incredible range as an actor. Mrs. Doubtfire and What Dreams May Come are exceedingly good at tugging at the heart strings, Hook enchanted us with adventure, Aladdin’s Genie was a masterpiece of comedy, and films like One Hour Photo showed us he had a dark side.

This isn’t a Robin Williams tribute post. My point is that even someone so full of happiness and laughter, so much the amazing friend and amazing person everyone who met him has said he is, even he has had demons. He made no secret of his struggles with drugs and depression, the latter of which overwhelming him even in his later years.

It’s something I’ve never been able to understand, and probably never will with any accuracy. With such deep and crippling depression, it’s difficult for anyone to understand who hasn’t seen or felt it first hand. To think that even someone who has a beautiful wife and children, lots of friends, is financially secure, and the source of so much outward-facing exuberance can still be so sad or angry or lost that they no longer want to live anymore is baffling to me.

In some ways it’s frightening. It means that despite all we may accomplish in life and all the wonderful people we might come into contact with and bring into our circle, it could still happen to us, hypothetically speaking.

It’s made me think too. I’ve been depressed many times. Those moments when I was a kid or a teenager, my dad was mad at me and I felt like he was singling me out for no reason. Those times when I’ve been struggling to get by, working two restaurant jobs without a day off in a month, trying desperately to make it seem to the first girlfriend I ever had (and her parents) that I was worth a damn as a responsible adult. When I realized my wife didn’t love me anymore and I was truly alone and on my own for the first time in my life. Sitting in school watching the “cool” kids socialize and talk about parties while I wracked my brain trying to think of something that would magically give me the social skills I lacked. Working side by side with girls I was attracted to but didn’t have the confidence or know-how to actually ask out. The many, many days and nights I spent in some hospital room hooked up to IVs and tubes and catheters, unable to sleep due to a combination of those shitty hospital beds and the constant buzz of the nurse’s station down the hall. Realizing that I’ve made a stupid, shameful mistake I always thought I was smart enough to avoid, with a little voice in the back of my head telling me I’m just like every other scrub who can’t keep his life together.

But this isn’t a “woe is me” post either, because through all of the hard times and emotion and loneliness, never once have I given serious thought to ending my life. Sure, when I was young I would have random thoughts of it, during my worst hospital visits or when I was an angry prepubescent brat who thought he knew better than everyone else. But I never would have actually done it. Ever. No chance. On some level I’ve always thought of suicide as the “easy,” cowardly way out of life’s troubles. I have much more respect for someone who faces those problems, overcomes them, and succeeds in being happy despite it all. It’s a quality I’ve always tried to value in myself.

To be honest, the thought of dying has always scared the crap out of me. There were more than a few occasions when I was a kid where I would randomly start thinking about death and how someday I’m going to die, just like everyone else. When that happened it would cripple me with fear. It didn’t matter that I was barely even a teenager yet and still had decades of life ahead of me. I’ve never subscribed to any idea of religion, an afterlife, heaven, hell, reincarnation, or any other posthumous scenario. Without any notion of anything beyond to look forward and latch on to, the idea that one day I’m going to cease to exist, my consciousness fading to a dark nothing, was so disturbing to me as a child that I would curl up in the corner of my room and sob uncontrollably.

But that’s exactly the point. Even aside from the fact that I appreciate overcoming adversity, that I don’t want to saddle my friends, family, and other loved ones with mourning, the idea of death is deeply unsettling to me. Frankly, even now it can still shake me to my core if I let it. Thankfully, I’ve gotten a lot better at occupying my thoughts with positive influences and ideas and activities, so I rarely think about my own mortality as an adult.

A big part of that mindset is constantly reminding myself just how much awesome there is in being alive. There’s never a shortage of things in the world today to be scared and depressed about. But by focusing on the good and fun things in life, I could never even fathom wanting to end it all voluntarily.

For me, it’s tearing open my lovingly-wrapped (6 layers deep!) Nintendo Entertainment System on my 8th birthday with my friends all around me, my mom grinning ear to ear at seeing the joy on my face. Riding a motorcycle down a winding valley road, rivers and trees flashing by. Going to a concert and letting the sights and sounds and rhythm overtake me as I dance in a freeing cacophony of expression. Sitting in a warm comfy chair with a good coffee, watching winter snow come down just outside the window in the twinkling light of dawn. Tensely concentrating on fighting Dracula in Super Castlevania IV only 24 hours after playing it for the first time, with about ten immediate and extended family members in the room all cheering me on. Being blown away after finishing a great book, thirsting for more. Embracing a pretty girl and bending down to kiss her, knowing she cares for you just as much as you care for her.

The list goes on and on. These are the things that have never failed to keep me going, have never let me forget how fucking amazing life is, and how much more of all of it I still want. They’re the reason I’m not scared of my brief moments of emo. Everyone gets depressed sometimes; it’s natural and can never be prevented completely. The key is to not let it overshadow all the good things and people around you. To paraphrase some lines from one of my favorite movies, I suppose I could be pretty sad about all the bad things that have happened to me, but it’s hard to stay sad when there’s so much beauty in the world. And from that perspective, I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.

Mid-life Non-crisis

It feels weird to be thinking of completely changing my life around at this stage. I’m 34 years old this week. Thirty fucking four. At this point I expected to have everything all figured out, and in a way I guess I do. I have a good, (relatively) stable job, have been living on my own for five years now, and have enough freedom with my life that I’m comfortable and can afford to have fun from time to time, whether that’s buying myself a new video game, going out for a few beers with friends, or taking a trip for a few days. In many ways I’m pretty happy with my life, and could stay in this place for quite some time fairly comfortably, assuming of course the job market doesn’t take a shit again.

But in the past year I’ve had the opportunity to make several trips to Boston/Cambridge, and the more I do that the more I find myself yearning to be in a big city environment on a more long-term basis. At first these were thoughts of living closer to my then-girlfriend. But the more I thought about it in terms of “would I still be willing to live here should her and I break up?” – which is kind of what you have to think about if you’re even considering moving somewhere long distance for a significant other – the more I realized I would indeed enjoy living in a big city.

Why only now am I thinking of changing things up? Is this some kind of mid-life crisis? Is this phase 2 of my finding myself and my place in life, in which case phase 1 would have begun when my ex-wife and I split in 2009? I’ve never considered myself as going through a mid-life crisis. I’ve always told myself I was making up for lost time from being so shy and reserved during my high school, college, and marriage years. I still believe this to be true, and in effect I’ve achieved a lot of what I’ve wanted in life. I don’t have a huge savings account and will not be anywhere close to ready to buy a house in the near future, but these things have never been at the top of my bucket list of life. I want to have fun, have just enough money to be comfortable while still being able to do nice things for myself every now and then, and spend good times with good friends. What more could I ask for?

Now that I’m spending significant amounts of time in a big city for the first time time in my independent adult life, I’m starting to realize how much cool stuff is out there. Every time I go I’m constantly looking around at the cacophony of things around me. So many places and museums and restaurants and events and parks, it dwarfs what’s available in Cleveland. Even if it didn’t, I’ve lived in Cleveland for most of my life. I love being in the hustle and bustle and crowds and subways and being in the middle of it all. There’s cultures and lifestyles I’ve never experienced. I want to take a long trip on my motorcycle. I want to see Philadelphia and Chicago and Seattle and San Diego and Dallas. Cities I’ve never been to. And after seeing it all, I’d like to think about the possibility of moving to one of them. I don’t know if I ever will; I kind of like living in the suburbs. But spending even a couple years in a big new place I think would open my eyes so much, at the very least to see if I could handle that kind of environment for an extended period.

I’ve never given much consideration to that age old question of where do you see yourself in 5-10 years. “Who the hell ever knows the answer to that question?” I used to say. I still don’t know if anyone does know where they want to be that far in the future, I’m sure there’s at least a few that do. But I think I’m starting to think about that for the first time in my life and all the things I want to do I haven’t been able to yet. In five years I’ll be almost 40. Arguably not a required settling down age, but certainly an age where your options for majorly changing up your life become riskier.

I’ve always wanted to see Europe. That being a trip that’s normally prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, I’ve started to come to terms with the idea that I might never go there. But every time I talk to a couple of my friends that have seen so much of the world, I get so jealous of the opportunities their lives have made possible. Recently I’ve been thinking it would be worth taking my tax refund for a couple years and making it happen. I’m not sure if I’d be able to find anyone I know with the means and opportunity to go with me, but it would absolutely be worth trying. I’d love to go on another cruise someday, so that’s something else that would be worth spending a tax refund on. And that would be something that wouldn’t be so scary to go on alone should I not be able to find anyone to go with.

Maybe I am entering another phase of my life. I’ve had a great time checking things off my bucket list for the past five years. I think it might be time to start planning to make the bigger things on that list a reality. I’m nowhere near ready to settle down in my life, and the longer I wait the more pressed my time and financial freedom will be. I have family/friends in or near Seattle, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. Chicago is only a few hours drive away. These seem like great places to start seeing what this country, possibly even this world, has to offer.

Best of the Rest Games of 2013

In addition to my favorite games from last year there was a lot more I played 2013. Given that my free time is more and more valuable, and more games come out than I will ever have the time to play, I want to make the most of the game time I do manage to eke out. To that end, one of the things I’m trying to start doing is take closer stock of what I play and what I get out of those games. I’m trying to do this with the books I read as well. I have a huge virtual stack of books I want to read and fell off course a bit in the latter half of the year, so I’m making a conscious effort to read more and enjoy what I read more, in addition to trying new authors and genres. In the spirit of this, here’s my other notable gaming tidbits from 2013, in addition to a few things I’d like to get to this year (key word “like to”).

Honorable Mentions

Fire Emblem: Awakening – Strategy RPGs are another genre that I love but don’t always have the patience or skill for. Fire Emblem’s rock-paper-scissors combat mechanic and preview of how every battle will go make them more approachable than most, even with their trademark permadeath. I really like the way Awakening amped up the presentation of the battles on the 3DS and broadened the relationship aspect of the characters in a really interesting, dynamic way. This is the best this series has ever been. I’m looking forward to playing more of it in 2014.

DuckTales: Remastered – I loved DuckTales on the NES, and this is a great remake of that classic. The visuals are stunning and the addition of an entirely new final level make this more than worth another playthrough. Now if only you could turn off those horrendous voiceovers.

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1 & The Walking Dead: Season 2 – Episode 1 – TellTale Games is really on a roll lately. They may be stretching themselves a little thin in 2014 with two more new series, but so far these make for a great start. The beginning of Season 2 to my 2012 Game of the Year keeps the cringe factor of the previous entry and I’m looking forward to see where Clementine’s adventures take her. The Wolf Among Us proves that this studio can take their great storytelling formula from The Walking Dead and make them work just as well with new creative ideas. This dark, dingy version of New York where fairytale characters must hide among humans makes for an excellent gritty crime drama and I can’t wait to see where things go. I’m not comfortable putting mere first chapters of games on my official top 10 list, but if the rest of these seasons keep up the quality there’s a good chance they’ll be shoe-ins for my top 10 list for 2014.

Games That Might Have Made My Top 10 List if I Would Have Played Enough of Them to Give Fair Consideration

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch – Studio Ghibli art style with a JRPG template? Yes! I loved what little I’ve played so far, but finding the time for a large RPG these days is pretty tricky. Plus, how can you not love Drippy?

Tomb Raider – This is the first Tomb Raider game I’ve ever cared about, let alone actually liked. Actually that’s not true. I liked Guardian of Light, but that wasn’t really a traditional Tomb Raider game. This essentially marks the Uncharted-ification of the adventures of Lara Croft, but I’m totally ok with that. This is one of the first games I’ll be going back to before the release schedule picks up in 2014.

The Last of Us – I really tried to finish this one in time, I did. I put it on the shelf when Diablo III took over my gaming life and didn’t pick it up again until around Christmas time. But then Christmas and New Year’s and work and life got in the way. I’ve already gone back to it and am about 40% through. Thankfully I’ve avoided all spoilers about the ending, let’s see if I can keep that up.

Grand Theft Auto V – Like Metal Gear Solid 4, Grand Theft Auto IV was the first GTA game I actually finished. I loved Niko’s story and the changes Rockstar made to the gameplay to make for a more grounded experience. For some reason GTAV hasn’t grabbed me like the last game did, but I’m still very early on, so I’m hoping it’ll pick up before too long.

Rayman Legends (Wii U) – I was planning on getting this for PS3 because I’m a trophy slave, but when I heard of the co-op features of the Wii U version I thought it’d be fun for my girlfriend and I to play together. We weren’t disappointed. We had a great time with her using the touch pad to help me work through the levels and get as many lums as possible.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes – I got tired of the Lego games quite a while ago. I’ve started dabbling in them again recently due to co-op with my girlfriend. While I still heartily disagree with the idea of Lego games including voiceover, having so many Marvel characters available to play with, and all their accompanying powers, makes this simultaneously the most ridiculous and most fun Lego game I’ve played in a while.

Disappointments

Aliens: Colonial Marines – I actually shelled out a cool Benjamin for the collector’s edition of this piece of crap. Now I can’t bring myself to sell it and see how little I’ll get for it. Ugh. At least I got a neat figurine out of it.

SimCity – Everything about this game leading up to launch made me super excited for a huge new SimCity, even if there was no way my computer was going to be able to handle it. Once the reviews started coming in though I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Between the severely broken – and mandatory – online aspects and the complete neutering of the gameplay with tiny city lot sizes, I was extremely upset EA’s new vision for the franchise appeared to eliminate the sprawling single-player metropolises of old. If this is SimCity’s future, then I want nothing to do with it. I’ll be over here playing SimCity 4 thank you very much.

Knack – Nothing says “new console launch” like a great-looking character action platformer. Knack looked like it was going to be the go-to killer game for the PS4. When I played it in a demo, it certainly looked amazing. Yay particle-effects! But the gameplay was surprisingly boring. I found the levels bland, the combat challenging but shallow, and Knack himself to be pretty forgettable as a character. After that it went from guaranteed purchase to maybe a rental, if I have time to kill.

Just Stop Already

Call of Duty: Ghosts – If Michael Bay made video games, he’d be making Call of Duty games. EXPLOSIONS! Follow this guy! Terrorists are blowing stuff up! Runrunrunrunrun! EXPLOSIONS! Now we’re in space! Why? Because EXPLOSIONS IN SPACE! Wait, what?? No time, now missiles are launching! Dogs! MORE EXPLOSIONS! Now we’re in another country on the other side of the world because the terrorists are here too and oh by the way we’re going to kill off one or two characters you control because it’s still impactful no really you guys it is! The first Modern Warfare did amazing things by putting you in genuinely gripping situations we hadn’t seen before and bringing first-person wartime shooters into the modern military age. It breathed new life into a stagnant genre, but after six games of running these ideas into the ground, the bombast and shock value have worn thin. CoD has become so ridiculous and abstractly convoluted I don’t even know what the hell is going on anymore, let alone why I should care. The gameplay is still silky smooth and Black Ops II just barely held my attention enough to appreciate the experience, but with Ghosts my motivation has never been lower, especially since I suck balls at multiplayer.

– God of War: Ascension – Look, I’m one of the biggest God of War fans out there. I played through all five games. I even played through 1, 2, Chains of Olympus & Ghost of Sparta again for trophies when the HD collections came out. I did this happily. But the story Sony Santa Monica set out to tell has been told. This sixth entry is forced and boring. The sense of scale isn’t as novel as it once was and the story and characters feel tacked on and lazy. I tried twice to get into Ascension, as the gameplay itself is still fun, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was only doing it out of some lingering sense of Kratos fanboy obligation. You’re a great character Kratos, but you got your revenge, now it’s time to see a shrink. And the multiplayer was actually more fun than it had any right to be, but wasn’t nearly enough to pick up the slack.

Top Games Released Prior to 2013 That I Only Discovered This Year

Doom & Destiny (Android) – One of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played. The gameplay is NES-era old-school and everything from the writing to the characters to the items poke fun at every JRPG trope you’ve ever heard. D&D is both a spoof of and a love letter to every RPG fan who grew up with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest in the 90s.

Hotline Miami – This game is not for the kids or the faint of heart. With psychedelically pixelated visuals and a pulsing synth soundtrack, I feel like I’m tripping balls every time I play it. This presentation sets the tone perfectly for the brutal, gritty, blood-soaked, neon-filled 1980s crime underground setting. You don’t know the people you are sent to kill, or why, only that your cryptic orders come from mysterious voicemails, and that you must be exacting and merciless in completing your assigned tasks. Success requires careful planning, lightning-quick reflexes, and the ability to adapt to change, otherwise they’ll be the ones taking you out faster than you can even call into question the morality of your actions. As the game progresses you’ll either get to the bottom of who is giving your assignments, or watch as your sanity unravels in front of you. Hotline Miami is the most surreal, visceral, and downright fun cartoon murder simulator ever made.

Thomas Was Alone – This darling of a game charmed the hell out of me with its simplistic yet endlessly endearing characters. Between the excellent narration and basic abilities of Thomas, James, Laura, and the rest of their quirky quadrilateral friends, I was more emotionally invested in their plight than most other game characters this year. And the soundtrack is pretty amazing too.

2014’s 2013 To-Play List

– DmC: Devil May Cry
– Antichamber
– Slender: The Arrival
– XCOM: Enemy Unknown
– Dishonored
– Gunpoint
– The Stanley Parable
– Earthbound (Wii U)
– Papers, Please
– Gone Home
– Year One
– Device 6
– The Room 2
– The Stanley Parable
– Resogun (PS4)
– Killer Instinct (Xbox One)

Ongoing Pile of Shame

Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls – I’ve tried to play Demon’s Souls about 4-5 times now, and every time I haven’t even been able to make it to the boss of 1-1. However, last night I finally managed to beat that first level. I have a renewed motivation to prove to myself I can conquer it now that I’ve opened up the rest of the game and started improving my abilities.

Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 Golden
Mark of the Ninja
– Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Arkham Origins
– Assassin’s Creed franchise (only finished the first two games)
– Halo franchise
– Gears of War franchise (only finished the first game)
– Mass Effect franchise
– Fallout 3
– Red Dead Redemption
– Darksiders II
– Borderlands II

PlayStation Network ID

My Top 10 Games of 2013

Looking over this list, I realize I played a lot of platformers in 2013. Also, a solid half of them are brand new games, and that’s always something to celebrate. Looking at it another way, about half of them are from smaller indie studios, marking another year of great games from that space. I couldn’t be happier that so many amazing games come from so many different sources now. I plan to share some of my other notable games later, including those I didn’t have the chance to finish in time for consideration here, but for now, here’s the very best of what I played in 2013. What did I miss? What do you agree and disagree with? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Speak up in the comments.

10. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

ImageI originally didn’t plan to include Brothers on my top 10 list this year, specifically because one of the reasons so many others fell in love with it didn’t have as big of an impact on me as it appears to have had on them. The ending is powerful, without a doubt, but I felt it was disappointingly predictable. Only when I started to think about all the other aspects of this game was I able to appreciate it as a whole instead of in terms of one defining moment. Most obviously, the one thumbstick per character nature of movement is fairly unique and made for some great puzzles as each brother must work together to finish their quest. Minor touches like the Simlish-esque dialogue and seeing the varying ways in which each brother interact with the environment give the experience charm and heart. And the environments themselves are nothing short of breathtaking. Lush forests, mountain ranges, mysterious caves, and a war-torn battleground of giants are just some of the ways Brothers constantly impressed me with its visuals. And even though I saw the ending coming a mile away, the final moments harken back to things learned throughout the adventure in subtle ways and use the mechanics to potent effect as I was forced to complete the game. Brothers is a short game, but one that is visually stunning and extremely focused, having no fat to it and superb execution, allowing it to be just as long as it needs to be to tell a poignant and personal fable.

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9. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

ImageI respect the Metal Gear games, but I don’t particularly find them fun to play. The pass/fail nature of their stealth combat and incomprehensible mythology are why Metal Gear Solid 4 and this remain the only MGS games I’ve actually finished, despite owning them all. Revengeance manages to leave almost all the geo-political crap from the past in the past and changes things up by adding fast-paced robot ninja combat. There is still stealth, and I enjoyed trying to sneak around when I wanted, but when things went to hell or I just felt like being a badass, it was really satisfying to set Raiden loose with his sword and yank energy reserves from cyborgs’ bodies before crushing them in my hand to absorb their energy while giggling to myself. There’s still plenty of war economy talk, pseudo-science, awesomely grandiose boss battles, and Raiden evaluating the morality and his place in it all, so it’s still very much a Hideo Kojima game. But this is the first Kojima game I actually had fun playing from start to finish.

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8. Tearaway

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Well it took almost two years, but there finally exists a game that shows the true potential of Sony’s handheld. From the same studio who gave us LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway not only oozes with the same charm and personality, but also uses all the Vita’s unique features in fun, innovative ways. The papercraft world just begs to be explored, especially after you start to move through and interact with it, watching it change and unfold before you. There isn’t as much to actually find there as one might hope, but being able to draw your own additions to the scenery and characters out of construction paper is fun and personalizes the experience. Using the front camera to put your own face on the sun in real time, along with the characters referring to you as “You” and as a part of the story, breaks the fourth wall delightfully and further enhances the personal investment. Using the rear touch sensor to poke your fingers into the environments to affect it is simply brilliant, and being able to take pictures of certain parts of the environment to unlock papercraft instructions is an incredibly cool way to take inspiration from the game and actually turn it into something creative in the real world. Tearaway is the game for which the PlayStation Vita was made.

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7. Rogue Legacy

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I will always love roguelikes in theory more than in practice. The tough but fair gameplay, always new world to explore, and permadeath are intriguing challenges but ultimately maddening. Thankfully, Rogue Legacy takes all those elements, puts them in a 2D platforming setting, and makes the whole thing approachable in a way no other game has. Platforming skills are tested to the max. There is dying, a lot of it. But death in Rogue Legacy is part of the experience rather than something to be avoided at all costs. The ever-changing castle map and random attributes of my character with every attempt meant I never got bored. And by earning money to purchase better skills after I did inevitably kick the bucket, it tempered the disappointment of failure with the promise of being able to do better next time. Clever tweaks to the formula like having to give up all leftover gold to take another crack at the castle and being able to lock the layout for a fee combine with super tight controls to hone Rogue Legacy into an incredibly fun and addictive loop of game, death, improve, rinse, repeat.

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6. Super Mario 3D World

ImageThe team responsible for reinvigorating the Mario franchise with Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel continues to foster some of the most creative minds in the entire medium. Super Mario 3D World doesn’t change the series as fundamentally as the Galaxy games did, but instead hits a great middle ground of Galaxy, the Mario 3D Land games on 3DS, and even the New Super Mario games. The levels constantly surprised me with something new and unique to do, the stars are fun and challenging to collect without feeling like a grind, and adding in Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach a la Super Mario Bros 2 is a great throwback to the past and opens up the gameplay. Getting three or more people together for co-op gets frustratingly chaotic, even with the more expansive levels, but two is a great sweet spot. Finally, the cat suit seemed at first to me to be a lazy and boring addition, but after playing with it, it’s one of my new favorites. Kitty versions of Mario and his pals are cute, fun to play, and most importantly, the ability to scamper up walls allowed the level designers to get really inventive with the verticality of the environments. This is exactly the kind of first party game that continues to keep Nintendo consoles relevant.

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5. Diablo III (PS3)

ImageSome would consider this cheating, but I didn’t play it on PC last year because my PC is garbage. Also, the console version was released this year, and Blizzard did way more than simply slap controller support onto a year-old game. I’ve always preferred direct control to clickfests, but by removing the auction house, tweaking the camera positioning, adjusting the loot drops and balance of power, adding buffs, and including local co-op, everything done to this game feels tailor-made to a home console experience that encourages the player to be more powerful and have more fun faster and easier. The loot grind is so addicting, the visuals – both gameplay and gear – so interesting, and the gameplay so smooth, that I literally played no other games for almost a month and a half after buying Diablo III. I don’t know exactly how many hours I’ve sunk into it, but this game is the sole reason I didn’t play enough The Last of Us, Tomb Raider or Grand Theft Auto V to give them a fair shot at being on this list. I’ve maxed out a barbarian, am working on a monk and wizard, and am eagerly awaiting the Reaper of Souls expansion, even if I won’t get to play it until months after it hits PC.

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4. BioShock Infinite

ImageNo, it’s not as good as the original BioShock. Columbia, while certainly intriguing for its own reasons, can’t even come close to Rapture’s enthralling atmosphere and alluring promise of Utopia under the sea. But the story around Infinite earns its high praise from me. I was a little disappointed the racial aspect hinted at in the beginning falls to the wayside, but the tale it makes room for had me hooked until the final cutscene and made me want to play through again to see what little tidbits I missed the first time through. The combat is standard BioShock stuff, but that’s not a bad thing. The gunplay and vigors are just as satisfying as Rapture’s plasmids, I loved filling in the backstory by finding voxophone recordings, and the Lutece twins are my favorite new characters of the year. Then there’s that ending. Oh, that ending.

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3. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

ImageTo be frank, I like Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker just fine, but I will always think of Zelda as a 2D franchise. I still believe A Link to the Past is the best Zelda has ever been. Anyone who’s played that game could be forgiven for thinking A Link Between Worlds is a remake of that title on first glance. The overworld is largely the same and all the dungeons are in the same spots. But it doesn’t take long before Nintendo’s claims that Worlds is in fact a completely new game – a sequel, rather – become clear. The visual and audio upgrades are substantial and the learning curve has gone back to being gentle without treating you like you’ve never held a controller before. It was a magical thing to remember where I was going only to realize that what I’d find in those locations were so new and fresh that it still gave me a thrill of discovery. The dungeons themselves are many, and while they may not be especially memorable, they hide within them some of the best level design I’ve ever seen in any Zelda game. Being able to attach to a wall and shimmy along it to cross gaps or squeeze into otherwise inaccessible areas makes for some excellent puzzles, and the top-down 3D really pops with the verticality of the world to such great effect that one particular cave even came the closest a game has ever been to giving me vertigo. Finally, the ability to use all the tools ever needed in the game up front and being able to complete the dungeons in any order really opens things up to explore to your heart’s content. Whether you’ve played A Link to the Past and revere it as much as I do, or haven’t played it and don’t know what all the fuss is about, you should play A Link Between Worlds. It’s the freshest and tightest experience the franchise has seen in years.

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2. Guacamelee!

ImageConsidering the previous games from DrinkBox Studios were Tales From Space: About A Blob and its very similar sequel, the fact that they pulled off a 2D Metroidvania platforming brawler so well is quite an achievement. DrinkBox’s art style and wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor are all over Guacamelee. Right up front the colorful lucha libre inspired visuals and music captured me and got me pumped to beat the crap out of the army of skeleton demons standing between Juan and rescuing the president’s daughter. The combat and platforming starts off nice and gradual, but eventually gets deep and difficult enough that I felt incredibly powerful and nimble when I finally mastered it. Some of the later boss fights and hidden platforming areas get pretty brutal, but these are balanced by a large skill set, super tight controls, and simple things like highlighting sections of the map containing as yet undiscovered areas. These take the tedium out of the backtracking inherent to these types of games. The subtle in-jokey humor, smooth platforming, and sharp combat had me unable to put Guacamelee! down until I earned its elusive platinum trophy. Plus, chickens wearing sombreros.

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1. Puppeteer

ImageThere’s a good chance that with all the Grand Theft Auto V/Saints Row IV hoopla most gamers completely missed Puppeteer, which is really unfortunate. I couldn’t stop raving about it in my review. Sony Japan Studio took a 2D platforming structure and turned it into a feast for the eyes and ears by way of Broadway theater. Some players may have trouble coming to grips with the slightly floaty nature of your star performer, Kutaro, and it’s disappointing that it doesn’t take more advantage of the many bizarre marionette heads sprinkled throughout the production, but the excellent acting, witty writing, and wondrous sights and sounds of the stage play presentation more than make up for these. Quite simply, Puppeteer had me grinning ear to ear pretty much constantly during my struggle with the Moon Bear King and his evil but goofy animal generals.

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