2014 was a funky year for new games. Lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. Several games I was hoping would be great were disappointments, and many of games I wound up liking best came out of nowhere.
Like I did in 2012 and 2013, I've put together a list of my favorite games of the year. As usual, I couldn't constrain the list to 10 games, so I've gone with 12. Hey, if it's good enough for The Bests, it's good enough for me.
Here they are, in no particular order.
We rarely get good love stories in video games, let alone love stories as strange and affecting as the one in Supergiant's Transistor. There were so many things I admired about this game: The tight design, that terrific upgrade system, that music and that art. But it was the narrative, the story of Red and her man, that sealed it for me. Transistor stood in the ruins of a love story, and it was beautiful about it. I hope the game's ending means what I think it means, but I like that it may well not.
Kentucky Route Zero, Act III
There's such a long gap in between episodes of Cardboard Computer's Kentucky Route Zero that I lose the thread and wind up replaying the entire thing once a year. It therefore becomes difficult to separate the acts from one another, particularly given the way this game spreads around one's memory like thick black paint. Act 3 of Kentucky Route Zero was not my favorite act, due mostly to the fact that the musical centerpiece that moved so many others left me unexpectedly cold. For me, Act 3 was where the game started to feel more clearly about something, or at least as clearly as a game this opaque gets. Big games like Watch Dogs and GTA V clumsily paw at the issues of the day, but Kentucky Route Zero vibrates closest to the truth's tuning. There's a reason the word "mortgage" begins with mort, after all.
At holiday parties, I often find myself telling non-gamers about Frontier Developments' Elite: Dangerous. They've probably asked me about the coolest thing going in video games, and I've started in about Oculus Rift and virtual reality, and how that stuff they promised us back in the 90s is actually happening now. Like I said when I first wrote about the game, I don't want to be "that VR guy." But, you know, like, omg, you guys, you have to see this shit, etc. This new VR is intuitive and immediate in the same way that the Wiimote was—you put on the headset, and you just immediately Get It. Elite: Dangerous is virtual reality's current best advocate, and it's a pretty darn enjoyable space sim to boot. The "final" version may have only just come out, but the game's many betas nevertheless helped define 2014 for me.
One of the frustrating things about writing about games for a living is how difficult it is to go deep into any given game. I sample, I taste, I try, but rarely do I have space to allow a single game to become a lifestyle. Bungie's Destiny is the thickest I've ever gotten into a game like this, to the point where it has become a minor obsession. That process has been rewarding, challenging, terrifically fun, and often maddening, much like Destiny itself. I've already said a great deal about Destiny, and I'll say a great deal more when I re-review it in the near future. For now, I'll just include it on this list, because I can't imagine leaving it off.
I don't travel enough. If that fact wasn't clear to me already, it was brought into sharp focus by the exhilaration I felt the first time I played Inkle's 80 Days. A fantastical reimagining of Jules Verne's novel, 80 Days captures the joy and melancholy of travel with unusual wit and humanity. I remain under its spell even as I embark on my third trip 'round the globe. Each time I arrive home in London and Fogg wins the bet, I think of the road not taken, of the many small adventures my Passpartout might have had and may yet have in the future.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
I've written a lot in the past about specific and "meaningful" video-game violence, and about my desire for games to feel more specific in general. It's a real trick when a game manages to make its procedurally generated elements feel unique and deliberate, and it's a trick that Shadow of Mordor managed with cheek to spare. In Mordor, each grunting, smack-talking member of Sauron's army felt like a unique character, to the point that violence against them began to feel morally queasy a dozen or so hours in. That uneasy conflict, best articulated by critic Austin Walker in a sharp piece over at Paste, is not new to big-budget action games, but in Mordor, it finds new friction. As non-player-characters become more and more "real," might we feel less and less okay about killing them? Mordor suggests that the answer will be yes, even as it conjures some of the most satisfying digital sword-murder in recent memory.
Necrophone Games' Jazzpunk made me laugh more than any other game this year. The game's aural tableau captured my imagination, too, with those weird musical riffs popping out of corners like some sort of amelodic hallucination. Jazzpunk is a game of right angles, constantly crashing into walls and falling off of ledges. Its jumbly rhythms initially confounded me, but the more I played, the more I fell for it. "Here are a hundred ridiculous ideas," it says. "Like 'em? Cool, here's a zombie made of pizza."
Speaking of laughter, I laughed a lot while playing Platinum's Bayonetta 2, in much the same way as I laughed along with its predecessor. Sometimes audaciousness cracks me up, those times when a game does something so awesome and rad that I can't help but grin. Bayonetta 2 establishes an early baseline—a first climax, in the game's parlance—that outperforms the final climax of most games. Few games can match Bayonetta for sheer verve, and no other game this year so immediately and joyously satisfied my craving for action.
The Last of Us: Left Behind
As the lights went down and the fighting game in Ellie's mind became real, Naughty Dog's The Last of Us: Left Behind moved one step beyond the images on screen and directly sparked my imagination. That is not a feat many video games can pull off.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
I've already written so damned much about BioWare's Dragon Age: Inquisition that I feel silly writing anything more. What else can I say? I loved this game like I love my mom's cooking, or my favorite hometown restaurant. If games must be this big, let them also be this generous.
Crypt of the Necrodancer
It's difficult to talk or write about why Ryan Clark's early-access roguelike Crypt of the Necrodancer is great, or even to show why it's great. We even recorded a bunch of people in the Gawker office playing it, but that video doesn't feel all that convincing. You've kinda just got to play this one. I was sold within five minutes, and the soundtrack is so good that it motivates me to play better—I want to get to the next level, so can hear a new tune! The "King Conga" battle is such a fantastic musical punchline that I have a hard time playing because I'm grinning so hard. One, two, three, four, one, two, three. Break!
Divinity: Original Sin
I didn't realize how much I'd missed mousing around the screen and organizing things in my inventory. Which character is carrying the magic items? Which character has the sack where we put all our books? Larian Studios' Divinity: Original Sin does a lot of non-inventory-related stuff right, of course. The co-op role-playing, in particular, feels like a bigger deal than I was expecting it to be. But when I think of this game, I think of rummaging through backpacks, getting things nice and organized. Aaah.
Those are my top 12 games. I had to leave off some worthy entries, or I'd have wound up running a top 20 list. Along with a few I'm sure I'm forgetting, honorable mentions go to Danganronpa 1&2, A Dark Room, Hearthstone, Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved, Threes, Dark Souls II, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Bravely Default, Mario Kart 8, FORZA Horizon 2, Far Cry 4, and Velocity 2X.