Here Are My Favorite Games, I Guess

Update (10/8/18): I've removed Persona 3 and replaced it with Tomb Raider II, a game that I think shaped my tastes and what I expect a video game to do much more than P3 ever did. Also, P3 just hasn't aged well, and it really isn't that good of an entry in the MegaTen series.

Content Warning: Suicide, Depression

The game industry has a fetishistic obsession with lists. Not only that, but they have a fixation on arguing over those lists - cross-referencing their own lists with other lists, then arguing over them. There's a big to-do made over actually making the lists, too. People agonize over their games of the year, their favorites of all time, et cetera, with the kind of stringent attention to detail one might apply to doing their taxes, or drafting their will.

Having been removed from the professional game writing sphere for about half a year now, I must admit there's a sort of relief in not doing that. It's silly, isn't it? Treating an arbitrary ranking of games like it actually means much of anything, and isn't just a way to distract us from the fact that we're doing exactly what game companies want us to do - arguing over products in order to encourage our friends to buy more products. This isn't to say I'm not going to do a game of the year list this year, because I definitely am. But the importance many place on it is kind of silly, I feel.

That said, it's with this freedom that I've come to realize what my favorite games are. Weird, right? Without any sort of weird pressure that comes with professional gaming, I was able to sit down and come up with my favorite games, which I've capped at my signature twelve. There's no particular order to this list, and one or two might be interchangeable, but there is one that I like above all the others, so I'll save it until last.

So, if you've been following me for these past four years and wondering about this, wonder no more.

Animal Crossing: Wild World (2006)

I led a really lonely life when I was a kid. That came with being homeschooled and only having one real friend, who was kind of a jerk anyway. But when I played Animal Crossing: Wild World, it never felt like it. After all, I could go chat with Tom Nook and his weird nephews as I bought stuff. I could hang out with Kiki for a while, either while she walked or in her house. I could go get a cup of coffee and chat about life with Brewster. When I had my little animal friends, I wasn't ever really alone.

That's kind of pathetic, I know, but so was I back then. And that's why Animal Crossing: Wild World means a lot to me, even though it's a series that's been improved on exponentially in more recent entries. It gave me a happy world that I didn't feel pathetic in, and gave me wish fulfillment that no other game could. Sure, I could kill giants in God of War, shoot criminals in Max Payne, be an interstellar savior in Halo 3. But that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted someone, anyone, to care about me. I wanted someone to miss me if I was gone. The real world couldn't give me that, but Wild World could. When I contemplated suicide, one of the few times I did between the ages of eleven and fourteen, Animal Crossing actually stopped me when Ayumi Hamasaki couldn't. Who would pick the weeds? Who would say hi to Kiki? Who would help Blathers and Phoebe finish the musuem?

Animal Crossing: Wild World is a game I'll always be grateful for. Even in all its jankiness, its limitations, it was there for me during lonely days and late nights when nobody else could be. While I'm in a better place than I was back then, I can still remember what that hopelessness felt like. And I can remember what a relief it was that somebody, somewhere cared enough to be my little animal friend.

Pokemon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum (2007)

This generation towers above the others for me not because it's the one I've played the most of. That honor belongs to Gen 2, actually, in particular Gold and Crystal. No, for me, Gen 4 represented peak Pokemon. It had some of the best monsters to catch, some of the best narrative arcs to experience (especially Platinum,) and some of the best implementations of the social elements the series had been striving towards since 1996. And while I may catch flak for this, I stand by it - it's the last Pokemon game that didn't suffer from Game Freak running out of ideas and throwing dumb ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck. It felt like a bigger, better version of what we'd been playing for years, and it was fantastic.

In addition, it was the first Pokemon I ever got to play with others, the first one I made an effort to master, the first one I went out of my way to get special event Pokemon that I still have almost a decade later. In a way, I guess, it was the first game to offer me what Nintendo had always advertised - a magical world full of mystical creatures that I could share with the people closest to me. No other entry has given me that since, partially because I've gotten older, and the magic has given way to me being hyper aware of the series' flaws and a desire to see a major shift.

Yet I still am a diehard fan, and likely always will be, until they stop making them or I die. And one of the reasons for that will always be how magical Gen 4 was for me - a gaming experience I'll probably never have again.

Sonic Adventure (1999)

My parents almost divorced when I was seven (and several times thereafter, actually, but they're still going strong somehow.) One of the impetuses for this was my mom kind of cheating on my dad, which led to an incident of my dad slamming his car into a car that her and another guy were in. On the highway. While I was in the car. My dad went to jail for a while, and after he got out, I was taken on a vacation to Disney World with my mom and her relatives. Only after that, they took me to Las Vegas and kept me. Without asking my dad. They gave me a lot of gifts and a lot of opportunities for distraction, but in retrospect, it was kind of a messed up thing to do. But then, my dad still had a lot of anger issues, so it's not like I don't understand.

What was this about? Right, Sonic Adventure. Anyway, those several months I spent in Las Vegas were pretty formative for me and my tastes. It was during this period of time that I fell in love with a lot of stuff I still like now - Dragon Ball, Outlaw Star, Sailor Moon, Cowboy Bebop. But most relevant to this discussion are the games I played. In a casino my grandmother went all the time was a glorified daycare center called Kids Quest, and in Kids Quest were kiosks of home consoles for kids to play on. It was here that I played Smash Bros, Super Mario 64, Rayman 2, Zelda: Majora's Mask, Paper Mario while my mom worked and my grandmother gambled. But none of those games held a candle to the game I played most, every time I came in. A game that opened with me running away from a giant killer whale. A game where I could run on the air. A game that was fast, frenetic, and distracted me from how confusing my life was.

Sonic Adventure is that game, and is something I play several times every year. Part of it is that it reminds me of the clarity it provided me when I was a kid. Another part is that it reminds me of spending time with friends a few years later, as I hogged their GameCube to play it. But unlike a lot of games I played a lot as a kid, it just holds up so well. It's still thrilling to experience all of the setpieces that game has to offer, and still pleasing to listen to the fantastic soundtrack. Sure, it's rough around the edges in some areas, but what games from the 90's aren't? Plus, the fishing is kind of fun, and personal favorite character Amy Rose gets the best characterization she's ever received.

As both a memory of escape from shitty circumstances and as a piece of comfort food, Sonic Adventure is a perennial favorite that I haven't gotten tired of almost twenty years after its release. Its existence also kickstarted my lifelong fandom for the series as a whole - still my favorite platforming franchise out there.

Silent Hill 3 (2003) 

It was kind of hard, deciding which Silent Hill I liked best. Of course, the second one is a classic, and features one of my favorite enemy designs in the Bubble Head Nurse. But then I also loved Shattered Memories, which made some of the best use of the Wii hardware and featured an ingenious plot twist that recontextualized the whole game - a precursor to the writer's Her Story. And of course, I genuinely adore Downpour, which goes some bleak places that gaming very rarely dares to tread and has the best combat in the series.

Ultimately, though, I have to say that Silent Hill 3 is my favorite of the bunch. Its portrayal of ruined suburbia still haunts me to this day, its willingness to be more off-the-wall nutty than other entries is admirable, and it has the most satisfying narrative arc out of all the games to me. Yet the reason it's my personal favorite lies in its protagonist - Heather. Heather is a female protagonist that gaming has barely gotten close to since, in that she's not overtly sexualized, very much does not pander to the male gaze, and actually acts like a real human being. On top of that, she's a character with a detached approach to everything she goes through and a disaffected attitude that speaks to me on a personal level. Playing Silent Hill 3, it almost feels that Heather's own mind is more terrifying to her than any of the stuff she goes through, and there's something unique about that, considering the genre. Unlike most video games, it feels like the writer actually interacted with women at some point in their life. She's been a really big inspiration for my female characters in the last few books I've written, and I suspect she will be for quite some time.

From its character to its story to its hellish dreamscapes, Silent Hill 3 really helped cement what I think good survival horror should be. It also helped me understand that going through life, watching everything unfold with detachment to it all, was okay.

The World Ends With You (2008) 

The World Ends With You did a weird combo of what Animal Crossing: Wild World and Silent Hill 3 did for me, now that I'm thinking about it. Its protagonist, Neku, hated the world and especially hated the people in it. He shut himself off from everyone by wearing headphones and ignoring everything around him. Yet only after dying did he realize that he needed people to truly live, after being forced into a game by a mysterious organization. He had to not only fight for his own existence, but for the existence of his partner. During this struggle, he saw the beauty of humanity - the selfless way people will fight to save those they care about. And the midst of this process of discovery, he's given a bit of wisdom that's stuck with me ever since I read it.

The world ends with you. If you want to enjoy life, expand your world. You gotta push your horizons out as far as they'll go.

These words changed my entire life. After only having video game animal friends as companions, and being shunned by anybody I ever tried to get close to, I thought that people sucked, and that I didn't need them. I just needed to exist, and that was enough. But after playing The World Ends With You, I began to question that approach. As I went into high school, I realized that maybe I needed to keep trying. Keep trying to make friends, to push myself out of my comfort zone, to experience new things. And sure, I fucked up a bunch, but I learned from those fuck-ups. With each fuck-up came a more complicated, nuanced world for me. If that world ended, then hey, at least it was one worth remembering. I still feel that way about my life - each day, I try to outdo myself, and if I die, I can die with the comfort that I tried my best. Some people like to call this game "edgy" (a patently silly critique, anyway, as I've written on before,) but I think it's one of the most heartfelt, genuine stories that's been told in the medium.

It's also just a really good game. It has one of the coolest combat systems out there, one that made the most of the DS as a platform. There's a fantastic art direction to it that other games have tried and failed to emulate, too, and a score that sounded good even through the tinny DS speakers. The World Ends With You not only changed my life, but also helped cement the DS as an all-time favorite system because of how well it utilized it. From top to bottom, it's just a wonderful game, and a profound one at that.

Night In The Woods (2017)

A lot of ink has been spilled on Night in the Woods this year, so I don't have a lot of unique reasons why this is a favorite game. So I'll stick with one - Mae is the only time I've ever felt truly represented in a video game. Her struggle to maintain friends, her social embarrassment, her penchant for isolating herself as a coping mechanism, her inability to keep her life together in spite of her best attempts... at varying points in my life, that's been me. It still is, in some ways.

But what really speaks to me is her grappling with body dysmorphia, something I've struggled with since I was ten years old. An early scene in the game features gives players the opportunity to look at Mae in the mirror and comment on her body. Only you can't say anything nice. You're blockaded off from being nice to yourself, and instead, you can only zero in on things for her to tear herself apart about. For somebody who doesn't know what depression or bad self-image feel like, that must be a surprise, or a moment that inspires pity. For me, through tears, I felt like somebody actually understood the hell I've been living with for most of my life. Depression and body dysmorphia fucking sucks, and it's cool that a game acknowledges that pretty bluntly.

Other than that, yeah, Night in the Woods is just amazing across the board. I'll write a little more about it in my Game of the Year list in a month or so. In the meantime, go play it, maybe?

Rule of Rose (2006)

In 2006 or so, I used to watch a lot of Cinematech: Nocturnal Emissions on G4. It was there that I got exposed to a lot of really, really weird games. Old PC titles, new obscure releases, Japanese porn games. But out of them all, there was one that stuck with me.

Something about this trailer, and the other snippets that were shown off, really unsettled me. The weird expression of sexuality among kids, the disturbing imagery, the haunting music... it all spelled out a game that was very much not for kids, yeah, but maybe not for adults either. Of course, I had to play it, and a few years later, before the game got too rare, I did. In spite of some janky controls and weird pacing, it quickly became a personal favorite. And in recent years, my love for it has only grown even more with each subsequent playthrough. In all my years of playing games, it's strange that I can only list two or three other things that are on this game's level in terms of intellectual storytelling and aesthetic accomplishment.

Rule of Rose is a game that is unafraid to plumb the depths of our cultural fears. The corruption of innocence, the cruelty and perversion of children, the arbitrary nature of gender, the heteronormative norms we instill our kids with... these are all sacred cows in terms of mainstream entertainment. And because gaming is still largely a medium in its infancy, most of the stuff that gets made is crowd-pleasing fluff. But Rule of Rose tackles all of the aforementioned themes with great aplomb, and then some. It's a disturbing, uncomfortable game that doesn't startle the player, but unnerves them for eight to ten hours, leaving them shaken and questioning everything about the world they live in. It's art at its most fearless, and it's fucking terrifying.

I think it's one of the best stories of queerness that's ever been told, and that it's one of the most vital works of horror that's ever been made. On a personal level, it speaks to my own experience discovering my own bisexuality as I got older, and it will always hold a special place in my heart because of that.

Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)

Zelda's another one of my favorite series, but choosing my favorite of the bunch is less difficult than choosing a favorite Silent Hill or Shin Megami Tensei. That's because for me, Twilight Princess is the one that gave me literally everything I want out of a Zelda game. A huge map, a cast of diverse and dynamic characters, interesting puzzle after interesting puzzle, and a sprawling, epic story. And in a series known primarily for its stories, Twilight Princess' is my favorite for a couple reasons - beating out even personal favorites like Link's Awakening, Majora's Mask and Oracle of Ages.

Part of it is, undoubtedly, when I got the game. I got it around launch for my birthday in 2006, when I was turning thirteen. And if there's a game in this series most designed around what speaks to 13 year-olds, buddy, it's Twilight Princess. This, to me, is arguably the darkest entry in the whole series, with off-putting character designs, a dreary story, and a faded, washed-out aesthetic that feels more akin to a Square Enix game than a Nintendo one. Everything's gritty and bleak and sad, and that spoke to me in a really big way.

Yet even when I wasn't a mopey teenager, revisiting Twilight Princess HD on the Wii U helped me to understand, on some level, why this game is still the best of the bunch to me. It wasn't just the inherent bleakness and sadness of it, but the hope that undercuts it all. Link, even when he's turned into a dog and practically enslaved by Midna, is the beating heart of the game that the player is supposed to embody. He's not just the savior of Hyrule, but the beacon of hope struggling against the odds. This is made abundantly clear by how the game sort of guides the player through the story, as opposed to some of the more non-linear entries. Link is optimism in a world that's seemingly lacking in it, and he alone has to carry that burden - even at the expense of his mental health, seen in the nightmare he has where his childhood friend becomes possessed and tries to stab him. There's something beautiful in that, a kind of cynical beauty that Nintendo has steered clear of in every game since. Even Breath of the Wild, a game about a literal apocalypse, feels less oppressively sad.

So yes, I think Breath of the Wild and the freedom it offers is quite good, even if its narrative is kind of bad. And yes, I do love the whimsy of Wind Waker and Skyward Sword, even if the Triforce Hunt is actual garbage and motion controls should never require any degree of precision. I love practically every Zelda, outside of Zelda II and Spirit Tracks. But I don't love any of them quite as much as I love Twilight Princess and its story of daring to hope amidst ruin.

Super Mario 3D World (2013) 

Super Mario 3D World is an oft-overlooked or disparaged game, either because it's a sequel to a thoroughly "okay" 3DS game or because it's on the Wii U. That sucks, because it's pretty great.

There's a lot I could say about this game, but for conciseness' sake, I'll narrow my rationale down to two bullet points. Firstly, the co-op in this game provides it with practically infinite replay potential. I've played this game with a few different people over the years and watched it played from time to time, and each time, it's a radically different experience. It perfects and refines the competitive co-op found in the New Super Mario Bros. series, in that it gives players equal capacity to either help or screw over each other in humorous ways. You can bounce on a friend's head to get collectibles in a way the game doesn't intend, or pick them up and throw them off the ledge just for the hell of it. No cooperative experience has inspired as much joy or as much spite as 3D World, at least for me.

Secondly, I think it's one of Nintendo's most clever and ornately designed games. The post-game is one of the most generous in the series, providing players with further challenges versus just more stuff to collect, challenges that eventually demand mechanical mastery. Each power-up does some of the zaniest things in the series yet, with the Double Cherry and Cat Suit being two notable highlights. And that's to say nothing of the initial climax, which features my personal favorite Bowser showdown. Oh, and the Captain Toad levels are dope and wonderful and I'm so glad they gave way to the unsung gem that was Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Nintendo, get on that sequel ASAP, 'kay?

I guess Super Mario 3D World is a favorite because not only is a joy to get better at and discover new things in, but it's the only 3D Mario that allows other players to share that experience with you in real time. That's one of the best feelings I've ever had in gaming.

Tomb Raider II (1997)

Tomb Raider II was the first game I ever played. To this day, I still compare almost everything I play to it, on some level.

Few games nail the perfect balanced that Core did with this stellar sequel. It's equal parts action and adventure, platforming and puzzling, intuitive design and intentionally oblique progression. To me, it's the perfect experience when it comes to offering tough but fair mechanics in a video game. That's to say nothing of the exciting and intoxicating locales it whisks players away to, or the beautiful atmospheric score.

On a more personal level, too, Lara Croft has always and will always be a personal heroine of mine. She's the kind of woman I wish I could be - strong, confident, funny, brave, sexy. Even when I was a kid and knew literally jackshit about my gender identity, I knew, on some level, I wanted to be just like her.

Anyway. Tomb Raider II, to me, deserves to be remembered as the definitive 90's 3D platformer, and not Super Mario 64. I say this because those Tomb Raider shaped modern AAA gaming into what it is arguably more than Nintendo did during the N64 era. Just saying.

Deadly Premonition (2010)

My tastes in games have changed a lot recently. The past year has felt like a rapid climax to a path I was set on seven years ago, a path where most AAA games are now dull to me and where I genuinely fail to understand why people think Horizon: Zero Dawn is anywhere close to the ballpark of "good." With each passing year, I can hardly recognize my old tastes, to the point where I'm actively grossed out that I thought Sleeping Dogs and The Last of Us were the best titles of their respective years at one point. But what set me on that path, then? What started my gradual disdain for Western AAA gaming, and my growing dissatisfaction with the state of the medium as a whole?

A janky, weird, budget-priced Xbox 360 game called Deadly Premonition, that's what.

There's a decidedly atypical narrative that's unlike anything out there, one that's beautiful, strange, hilarious, profound, and stupid in equal amounts. It's told across a unique open world - not one that's there for the player to have fun in, but for them to carry out the day-to-day drudgery of life, a la Shenmue. Everything is held together by a gorgeous score and some genuinely tense moments of horror, such as being chased by the Raincoat Killer or being accosted by weird demon-zombie-things.

In a traditional sense, Deadly Premonition might be "bad," because it doesn't offer a story that's easy to digest, constant stimulation, visual bombast, or fluid gameplay. For me, though, few other games have defined my preferences and inspired me in a creative sense as much as SWERY's perverse masterpiece. My contrarian tastes were born from this game, in many ways, and it's a personal favorite because of that.

Nier: Automata (2017)

Come next month, I'll have a lot more to say about Nier: Automata, much like Night in the Woods. For now, however, it will have to suffice for me to say that it has become my irrevocable all-time favorite. That's no easy feat, either, as Metal Gear Solid 3 held that slot for a decade.

Nier: Automata manages to not only do everything I want a game to do, but to also do things I never thought I wanted. Through its 30 or so hour runtime, it not only tells a story that's stuck with me every single day since finishing it, but it also upends gameplay expectations that the medium itself has set in place. It's a title that transcends genres in both the narrative and mechanical sense, in a way that I didn't think a game would in my lifetime. 

Somehow, it feels like something too early. Gaming, as I mentioned above, is in its infancy, and something this profound, this polished surely shouldn't be out yet. When I think about it, this has to be how German audiences felt when they watched the first cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis - a prophetic spectacle that's somehow topical in any time period, somehow thought-provoking regardless of your own personal philosophy. The fact that it's being shunned by contemporary award shows mirrors that film's history, even.

Give it a hundred years. When video games are reaching maturation, it will undoubtedly be seen as an early watermark, head and shoulders above its peers. In the meantime, I'll be thankful that I got to be alive to experience something so beautiful and so fucking awesome in equal amounts.

Final Thoughts 

There you have it. My personal favorite games of all time, give or take. Looking at the list as a whole, I feel pretty good about it. Had this list been a top 20, Chrono Trigger, Resident Evil 4, and No More Heroes would've likely found their way on here. But all told, this list represents the gamut of my tastes, and probably confirms any suspicions you might have that, yes, I'm kind of contrarian and sort of a hipster.

That said, I hope going forward that this list helps people understand where I'm coming from with my opinions a bit better. What I think is "good," what I think is "bad," et cetera, et cetera. Regardless, thanks for reading, and cheers until next time.


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