I read, watched, and listened to far too much game related content in 2013 for my own good. Thankfully, there are a hell of a lot of great people out there to make doing that a wholly worthwhile endeavor. Here’s my list (in no particular order) of ten people in the gaming industry who really made 2013 memorable for me.
PATRICK KLEPEK of Giant Bomb
Patrick Klepek is the man I point to when I want to show people what a game journalist should be. He always does his homework, checks his sources, and makes sure he knows what the hell he’s talking about before he produces an article, and it shows. He broke one of the biggest stories of the year with the reveal of Microsoft’s Xbox One DRM backpedaling, and he did so in a way that was straightforward, to the point reporting.
As if that journalistic strength wasn’t enough, the video content he started producing in 2013 was phenomenal, particularly the Giant Bomb Premium feature “Spookin’ With Scoops,” where Patrick plays horror games before a hungry chat audience for our amusement, offering not cheap scares and wacky reactions, but a measured, knowledgeable approach to the genre coming from someone who truly loves and understands it. Into 2014, he’s been knocking it out of the park with his daily Spelunky runs, Dark Souls streams, and always enjoyable morning shows with co-host Alex Navarro. Patrick really is the exemplar of how to conduct yourself online (hell, he’s given a TED talk about it), and it’s always a joy to read and watch his work.
ZOE QUINN of Depression Quest, Tidbytes, etc.
Zoe Quinn’s work on Depression Quest really helped me gain some important perspective on my own life and my own issues, and for that I owe her more than I can express here. She’s also an incredibly active advocate for getting people interested in making games. Few people really seem as committed to making game development a more common hobby or skill as Zoe is, and her Tidbytes are little hilarious mini lessons in game design each time a new one is released.
She’s also a hilarious person to follow on Twitter, and is constantly showing the right way to deal with difficulties in life and in game development. Zoe Quinn, simply put, kicks ass, and I wish she didn’t have to deal with so much bullshit in the process.
ANDREW GROEN of Red Bull eSports, formerly the Penny Arcade Report
Andrew is, as far as I’m concerned, the undisputed king of long form eSports reporting. I wish I had some of his PAR articles to link here (they’ve been tragically shoved off the internet), but the short version of what I’d link if I could is that Andrew has a real gift for making eSports articles that focus on all of the interesting aspects of competitive online gaming by adding in a clean, narrative drive to all of the action that contextualizes it in human drama.
Reading an article by Andrew is a way for me to instantly gain a grip on eSports scenes and players I’m not familiar with. I follow LoL mostly, but through Andrew’s work, I’ve gotten much more a sense of the Starcraft, fighting game, and Dota scenes, and I think he’s one of the few people out there today that’s really nailing eSports reporting in a way that delivers easy accessibility. His expertise goes beyond just the eSports angle as well, with work that shows an impressive ability to make the incomprehensible interesting.
CARA ELLISON of Rock, Paper, Shotgun and more
Cara Ellison is one of the most heartfelt, straightforward, and staggeringly funny people writing game-related content out there today. Her work has an almost unparalleled strength of personality to it, and I think I could pick out a Cara Ellison piece at a glance without any trouble.
She writes about things that matter, she writes about things that are hilarious, and she writes about things that are hugely, painfully human. She’s also not half bad at the whole game writing thing herself, having made a text adventure called Sacrilege, a work of such sheer frankness that it commanded my mindset in a way that few AAA games could endeavor to equal. She’s recently taken to Patreon in a very successful project to perform embedded games journalism, and I have a good feeling she’s a very safe investment.
RYAN DAVIS of Giant Bomb
Fuck, Ryan Davis. Ryan was the heart and soul of Giant Bomb, a booming, laughing, larger than life man who made anyone feel instantly at ease. Losing him back in July was one of the biggest sucker punches I felt last year; going out at the top of his game, a master of podcast hosting, quick look hilarity, and generally just being instantly lovable.
I spent a lot of time mourning Ryan Davis for someone who never met him. I felt like I knew Ryan, having spent time watching so many videos and streams of him and listening to him talk about games, movies, and everything else. All of the guys at Giant Bomb feel like they’re everyone’s friend at this point, and even though I never met Ryan, losing him felt like losing a friend. Rest in peace, duder.
JESS CONDITT of Joystiq
Jess Conditt is the queen of the animated GIF. Her responses to misbegotten Joystiq comments via her Dear Trolls blog are some of the funniest examples of addressing internet belligerence around, and her work on Joystiq is constantly highlighting games, people, and projects that deserve attention.
On top of that, she writes a heck of a review, and her teardown of Lococycle is about the only great thing to come out of that game’s existence. She’s been popping up in Joystiq’s new weekly streams lately as well, and like all of Joystiq’s crew, she has a great personality for creating video content, as well as for appearing in the Super Joystiq Podcast.
SUSAN ARENDT of Joystiq
If doubling down on Joystiq is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Susan Arendt is what my brain defaults to when I think of an editor in the gaming industry; sharp, snappy writing, a great social media presence, and no nonsense. I don’t always agree with Susan’s opinions on games, but I have a hard time arguing, because she’s got a skilled, incisive way of presenting her opinions and a directness to her writing that makes it hard even for snarky bloggers with law degrees like yours truly to poke holes in her reviews.
Susan and Ludwig Kietzmann run a hell of a tight ship over at Joystiq as Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief, keeping the site very straightforward and to the point in its content and design while still constantly cultivating a stable of intelligent, interesting, and likable writers. Joystiq rules, and it rules in no small part because of Susan Arendt.
JOHN WALKER of Rock Paper, Shotgun
The last true action hero of the PC gaming world, John Walker’s hilarious, unflinching honesty is a voice that’s sorely needed in the gaming industry. I look forward to reading anything John publishes, regardless of whether I agree, disagree, or even know what the hell he’s talking about.
A refusal to be bound by anyone’s expectations or standards when it comes to the way he criticizes games, John examines games in a way that’s wholly independent of his peers, and his work is constantly getting me to take a look at games that many others disliked. His piece on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning last year sold me on that game nearly single-handedly, and there are countless other situations where I’ve been made to try things out based on his writing.
BEN KUCHERA of Polygon, formerly Penny Arcade Report
The Penny Arcade Report might be gone, but there isn’t a force on this Earth that can stop Ben Kuchera’s pen from moving. Ben defined the video game opinion piece for me, and his articles have a way of asking great questions while simultaneously providing well reasoned, well written answers. Ben’s passionate energy for the hobby and all things it contains is infectious, and it’s partially because of PAR’s influence that this blog exists.
I got the chance to meet Ben at PAX last year, and despite it being deep into the incredibly busy convention, his enthusiasm and energy were contagious. It takes a lot to be that thrilled to meet some fans after undoubtedly working his ass off all weekend, and it meant a lot to me.
TRAVIS GAFFORD of onGamers
The war reporter of the LoL scene since time immemorial, Travis Gafford has made video interviews into an art form. His unique, friendly rapport with each of the different players he speaks with couple with the sheer ridiculous amount of content he produces made him the face of the LoL eSports scene for me in 2013; after every event, I could count on finding a Travis interview with virtually every major player involved in any of the games at the tournament.
Travis also isn’t afraid to get to the point and ask important questions, and his participation in the creation of onGamers has created a fantastic centralized reporting source for eSports pieces. He doesn’t seem to be letting up in 2014 at all, as he’s been there in the trenches every week of LCS so far. Travis Gafford is an interview machine, and has really helped give the LoL scene some personality.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the games themselves at the end of the year that we forget the little things in each one that made them so excellent. So today, I’m going to highlight five specific mechanics in 2013 games that stood out to me.
Thresh’s Dark Passage, League of Legends
Thresh is a champion that, like Lee Sin, seems tailor made to be a giant Big Plays Engine. The amount of times I saw a game won on the back of an unbelievable Thresh play from Madlife, Xpecial, or Edward in Season 3 is beyond human comprehension.
The biggest catalyst for these is his W ability, “Dark Passage”, which throws a lantern onto the field that an ally can click to be pulled quickly to Thresh’s location. This essentially gives all of Thresh’s allies the equivalent of a Lee Sin Safeguard; the lantern can be used to bail people out of tough situations as well as calling in unseen allies suddenly for a fight.
From there, the dominos continued to fall and Thresh found his way into an overwhelming majority of pro matches, if only on the ban list. He found his way into my heart as well, and Dark Passage was the key to it, even if I had to spend the first two months of his existence constantly screaming for people to click the lantern in chat. It was the Lightwell all over again.
This is the kind of mechanic I love in MOBAs. It turns the game completely on its head and opens a huge amount of possibilities not just for Thresh himself, but for everyone on his team. It’s a great play-making enabler, synergizes well with the rest of Thresh’s kit, and feels great to use.
Coaching Mode, Dota 2
While we’re on the subject of MOBAs, I want to highlight the best innovation for getting friends into the genre that I’ve ever seen. Dota 2’s Coaching system is a brilliant way to let your friends watch and guide you through a game without the pressure of letting them down if you make mistakes.
MOBAs are an inherently conflict-brewing genre. One player doing poorly weighs on all the others. Playing with friends to learn the game often means screwing things up for them until you’re good enough to hold your own, and it was a huge barrier to entry to Dota 2 for many of my friends and myself.
With Coaching, you can a friend’s undivided attention in a way that won’t end the friendship in the process. Valve also went beyond that call by incorporating a huge amount of interface tools into the experience, giving the coach the ability to indicate all kinds of things to the player and see exactly what’s going on with the student’s cursor. The coach has full access to every aspect of the player’s experience and can guide them accordingly, which makes an enormous difference in such a demanding game and genre.
The Daily Challenge, Spelunky
How do you manage to make something social out of a solitary game about delving into procedurally generated caverns with one life to live and a host of dangers to end it? How do you add permanence to something inherently mercurial, letting people have an anchor to latch onto in their social endeavors with the game?
Spelunky’s answer is the Daily Challenge, a single randomly generated map that’s given to every single one of the game’s Steam or PSN players (thought different on each platform) that each player has only one shot at. The objective: get more money than everyone else you know, and while you’re at it, try to die later than they did, too.
On its own right, purely through the leaderboard integration of it all, it’s a fascinating and engaging social competition, with each player sharing stories of where they inevitably died and what it was that killed them. However, many people have taken it a step further, recording their runs or streaming them.
It’s unreal how much fun it is to watch other people tackle a challenge that you did, each day presenting a new set of failures, successes, judgment calls and screw ups to watch. Spelunky was already a phenomenal game on the 360 last year, but the Daily Challenge has turned it into a community phenomenon.
Controlling Clones, The Swapper and Super Mario 3D World
This mechanic gave me a ton of moments of Gestalt where I had the sudden realization of what it meant that I was controlling multiple equally significant people simultaneously. It was like one of those optical illusions that are two pictures at once; am I controlling the left Mario, or the right one? I’m controlling both, of course, but my brain refused to process that. I like it when games make my eyes go crossed, and both of these titles that utilized this mechanic really put my head through its paces.
The Swapper especially challenged the way that I looked at my identity as a player character within games by using this mechanic. I could never look at things on a macro level of controlling everyone; I always had to focus my eyes on a single character, accept him as the “main” guy and then treat the others as henchmen. When I needed to focus on another one, he became the “real” main character and all the others were graveyard stuffers. It was bizarre, as it’s an incredibly unrealistic way of looking at it, given that all of them are the main character, but it’s the only way my head could wrap around it.
When it came to having to do it on the fly in action sequences in Super Mario 3D World, I was hopeless. My fleet of Marios was often a liability more than a help, and I sent many innocent Marios to their deaths in service of Mario Prime. Despite my incompetence, though, the mechanic was just as compelling, and always felt like it was making me work on my brain muscles a little.
Two Brothers, Two Halves, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
This one’s gotten a hysterical amount of (well deserved) praise as a storytelling mechanic, so I’ll refrain from echoing what I’ve already said before on this blog about the genius of it as an evolution of the medium. But in a similar vein to the above mechanic of duplicate player characters, the need to do multiple different things at once between two characters as only a single player is really made me think about the controller differently.
On top of that, the subtle ways in which the brothers interacted with things differently characterized the two halves in the controller in a unique way, and it made puzzle solving not just a matter of figuring things out, but also of getting your head screwed on properly enough to use the correct side of the controller at the correct time.
Thankfully, the times that required me to actually use both sides to do something time sensitive were few and far between, and well executed when they came about. There was a lot of potential for frustration with this mechanic, but Starbreeze implemented it well and managed to keep it fresh for just the right amount of time.
It’s a new year and I’m back in the saddle here again now that my holiday travel is all over and done with! I’ll be kicking off the new year in belated fashion this week with five lists of five things about 2013, one each day. After that, it’s back to somewhat regularly scheduled programming, although I may make some changes to the structure around here. It’s my blog, I can hideously ruin everything if I want to, dammit!
FIVE THINGS I LEARNED FROM GAMES IN 2013
1. I’VE STILL GOT A COMPETITIVE STREAK IN ME
Before 2013, I’d pretty much written off the idea that I’d ever get heavily invested in a competitive online game ever again. I played a fair amount of Starcraft, Warcraft III, and Counter-strike back in the day, but I hadn’t really gotten into something super competitive since those games fell out of favor and I didn’t really feel compelled to change that.
Ten months later, I was furiously spamming ranked League of Legends games in a desperate attempt to achieve a certain rank before the end of a competitive season.
What the hell happened?
Peer pressure, for starters. I got into League of Legends because everyone got into League of Legends, and when you’re in a team game with competitive friends, the drive to improve yourself becomes an almost physical force. It’s remarkable how much of a motivating factor the need to meet the expectations of others is, and a MOBA especially applies hefty consequences for failure.
I’d missed that drive for improvement. Single player games can lob extreme difficulty at you and demand adaptation in order to overcome challenges, but there’s a different kind of personal satisfaction that peer competition creates. I need to get better because getting better is its own reward; the leveling up takes place mentally.
By the end of the year, I was heavily into Hearthstone and am now falling back into old habits with CS:GO, and I’m eyeing Starcraft II suspiciously as is approaches me menacingly. Here’s to another year of getting mad at myself and converting that into motivation.
2. LOSING IS FUN
This is a time honored mantra of the Dwarf Fortress community, but it applies to a lot of things I played in 2013. The roguelike and all its various derivative genres absolutely dominated this year, and it’s in large part because death can be such a powerful educational tool in a game.
When I play Spelunky, almost every single death is a cautionary tale of What Not To Do the next time you embark into the grand dungeon. Rogue Legacy was a constant exercise in spinning failure into success by using one life to build on the next. Eldritch, Tower of Guns, FTL, all of these experiences are brilliant because your anger at losing is surprassed by your feeling that next time you can do better because of what you learned.
The crowning achievement here is Dark Souls, which I looked at earlier in the year in review form more closely. Dark Souls is a game about embracing failure and death as being as much of a mechanic as that which enables you to succeed. The game is at its best when you’re applying lessons learned in failures and turning those lessons into successes. Conversely, it’s at its worst in fights where death doesn’t really give you a sense of education or mental progress (see: Bed of Chaos.)
Like it or not, the rapidly evolving landscape of procedurally generated high difficulty experiences is here to stay, and I couldn’t be happier.
3. COROLLARY: SUCKING IS FUN
Alternate title here: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Knowing Fuckall About Dota 2. Something important I learned in 2013 as a result of playing so much of the MOBA genre is that I really, really like learning new game mechanics through practice. I don’t really like reading about what Dark Seer can do, but when I jumped in a game as him or any other Dota hero and felt just how different he was, it was exciting. It’s exciting every time: when I learn a new hero, buy a new item, wipe on a fight in an MMO, screw up a mechanic in a card game, any of it.
So the natural result of this, then, is that I get a lot of enjoyment out of playing games where I don’t know very much, which of course means that I get a lot of enjoyment out of being a crippling, miserable liability in those games to all of those unfortunate enough to be on my team. I love not knowing. It’s why I love MOBAs, where there are 100+ utterly different heroes to learn and play.
That moment of “WOW” when I’m killed in a way I’ve never seen before is great, and 2013 helped me realize that failure isn’t always a bad thing, and it can be fun to not be great at something, because it means you have so many triumphant teachable moments to come. A nice bonus is having patient friends willing to be the teacher.
4. I’M NOT COMPLETELY EMOTIONALLY DEAD INSIDE
Not even law school could completely blast the humanity out of me, and this year had a slew of game experiences designed to go for the emotional jugular. The chief culprit here was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. I knew where things were going, I had a good feeling how we were going to get there, but I still got totally punched in the gut at the end and it shocked me.
Then I almost immediately thereafter played The Stanley Parable and laughed like I’ve never laughed at a game, and it was all the result of aspects of the medium that I’d become so attuned to. You hear a lot about how The Stanley Parable plays so heavily off of genre tropes and is a send up of game design in general, but the really great thing about it is not that it riffs off of game design, but that it riffs off of game players.
The game’s joke isn’t that games are designed in such a way as to contain humorous tropes; it’s about how the player reacts to them. I was laughing at so much of the narrator’s condescension not because I’d seen it in games before, but because I was laughing at myself. I’m the doofus who clicks a door a certain number of times for an achievement, or tries to climb out a window, or goes and hides in the broom closet to see what happens.
I’m the punchline of The Stanley Parable. I’m the nexus through which the story of Brothers runs. I’m the one who drives all of the investigation in Gome Home, That’s what made them work so damn well, and that’s what reassured me that games still have ways to pull a genuine, new, unique emotional reaction out of me.
5. WATCHING GAMES CAN BE AS MUCH FUN AS PLAYING THEM
This really was of the year of the stream, wasn’t it? I watched an unholy crapton of streams of various kinds, and I got hardcore into the eSports scene for LoL, as well as starting to dabble in various others. It was a big year for learning to be a spectator, and when the console launches came, I was able to feel like I was a part of them even though I wasn’t getting one.
The real lesson here was that there is an unbelievable number of funny, entertaining, talented people out there producing games content in video form, and that eSports is a rapidly growing enterprise that I’m excited to be on board for. There’s a huge amount of enjoyment to be gained from seeing games played at the highest level, and I’ve been introduced to a large amount of games from watching people playing them live.
This year is looking to be even better on that front, with my beloved Loading Ready Run starting near-daily streams every week, more streaming content coming from the ever-lovable folks at Giant Bomb and Joystiq, and the imminent return of the LoL League Championship Series to accompany my normal OGN viewing. It’s going to be a hell of a ride, both to watch and to play.