Did I do this right? I'm not sure if I did this right.
2014 was an amazing year for games. 2014 was the worst year for games in recorded history. I don't think there's been a more polarizing time for video games and those who play them in, er, ever. Busted, hunk-of-scrap big-budget releases are raining from the sky as though we're standing in the aftermath of some quality-obliterating explosion, portions of gaming culture are at war with each other, and even wildly innovative games are finding it harder and harder to stand out. But amongst all that, triple-A games and indies alike are tapping into a rich vein of interesting ideas, people are doing incredibly fascinating things in the games they play, and more strange, quirky, undeniably heartfelt games are appearing out of nowhere than ever.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," to quote Goku or The Rock or somebody.
Here are a bunch of games I really loved, and also a lot of other stuff you didn't ask for, but I added it anyway.
Supergiant's second game after prodigious devourer of GOTYs Bastion kinda fell off the radar after it came out in the spring. I'll admit, too, that I had a hard time figuring out exactly how I felt about it at first. On one hand, the battle system was a super smart fusion of real-time brawling and turn-based tactics, and the setting was cyberpunk dressed up in its fanciest ball gown. Problem was, I didn't get as much mileage out of the battles as I was hoping, and the story was somewhat confusing despite a tear-jerking emotional core.
In the weeks after I finished Transistor, however, I thought more about it. I dissected the story, realized that terminals—while no substitute for decent flashbacks—fit the world and the telling of its tale. I was glad, in some ways, that Transistor's story wasn't as straightforward as Bastion's. There was more meat on its bones, more to chew on over time. I felt little pangs of sadness every time I thought of the scenes when Transistor got "drunk" and said sloppy, beautiful stuff to Red. I fell in love with the fact that the game had a hum button.
Red and Transistor's relationship mirrored one I was in at the time, too. I realized, cheesy as it is, that one line from that game will always stick with me:
"Think anyone else is in here? Besides me, I've seen no one. But when I look up to where the sky should be... I see you. And I know... you can hear me."
I'm still not done with this one, but I've played enough that I can pretty safely say it's one of my favorite games of the year. Yeah, it's bloated as all get out with quests that feel like MMO filler, yes, there's an almost intimidating amount of lore piled in every corner, and yes, the PC version could be much, much better. But still, the story and characters represent BioWare in top form, and the world is massive. Heck, even the sex scenes are good and heartfelt this time around! In a BioWare game! Now if only I could choose between my save where I'm with Sera and my save where I'm with Iron Bull.
The other side of the sprawling fantasy RPG coin. While not nearly as well-written or cinematic as BioWare's Hollywood-aping opus, Divinity brings quirk, complexity, and innovation in spades. I wrote about why exactly I love it so much here, and I'm gonna be slightly lazy and quote myself:
Sure, it's rough around the edges and its writing can't hold a candle to something like Dragon Age, but it exemplifies what many people feel like PC gaming is "about" in a way no other RPG has in years.
It's this mishmash of crazy, ambitious systems that can fall apart at the slightest nudge, and that's the fun of it. Can't beat a boss? Absolutely at your wit's end about it? Then stack up a fortress of invincible chairs to trap that enemy in place and wail away at your leisure. Did the designers intend for you to do that? Nope. Did they try to disallow it? Definitely not.
In many ways, Divinity was made to be broken. Not in a detrimental way, but rather in a way that offers players an extra degree of freedom.
This is a fantasy game that taps into a different part of the imagination than many others. It's not just about putting yourself in the +3 Orangutan Boots of some world-saving ultra-wizard and getting immersed in a world. It's also about imagining what you can do. As a player, as an entity both inside the game and outside of it.
That's present in everything: an open class system where anyone can theoretically pick up any class' abilities, a spell system that encourages mixing and matching and environmental manipulation, the ability to steal just about anything, attack just about anyone, and so on. You can teleport random people off cliffs! You can break quests entirely!
Yeah, what he said.
I know that only one episode of this came out this year, and it was only a couple hours long. Even so, KRZ continues to write and atmosphere circles around pretty much all other video games. Without spoiling too much, each theatrical vignette is a new meticulously wrapped giftbox filled with smaller giftboxes, each bursting at the seams with their own meanings and eccentricities. I absolutely adore dialogue choices being used as a means not of making choices, but rather shaping characters and their mournful histories, painting personality onto the loneliest corners of the canvas. The Zero is a strange, bewildering place, but I've never explored anything else like it.
Bonus kudos to this extension of the universe that takes the form of a lengthy automated phone call. It is, much like Kentucky Route Zero itself, frequently slow, meandering, and strange, but it is also fearless. This series is so effortlessly confident in every step it takes. I can't wait to see where it goes next, even if we have to wait a while.
This one caught me completely by surprise. The original Shadowrun Returns was an alright turn-based tactics RPG, but it was pretty by-the-numbers, all things considered. Dragonfall, however, pulled out all the stops, blending cyberpunk sci-fi and gritty fantasy to create a uniquely absorbing concoction. I began playing one Saturday morning on a whim, and I did not stop until Sunday evening. I fell in love with this place, with the weird twists and turns both its story and dialogue took. I really dug shaping my character through little incidental interactions like donating to a slightly racist yet (mostly) well-intentioned ork. Dragonfall takes place in a grim, fucked up world, but it offers plenty to smile about.
I remember first reading Yannick's review of this one and thinking, "Wait, this game isn't just a shallow Assassin's Creed clone? I... I should actually be interested in this?" Turns out, Mordor kinda puts this year's Assassin's Creed to shame, though not through missions or storyline or anything like that. Thanks to the delightfully personality-driven Nemesis system, Mordor is a true sandbox. So many different orcs, so many memorable moments.
It still astounds me that my favorite character in Tolkien's nearly century-old universe—a teetering tower of volumes, editions, games, movies, and fan fictions (which the recent Hobbit movies count as)—is a humble uruk who never even made it to warchief. Throughout the game's first half, he hounded me every chance he got. Hura Skull-Collector was his name, practically my shadow. Or at least, he would've been if I didn't already have a magical elf ghost for a shadow.
He was an awful fighter. He was slow and awkward, easily dispatched by basic acrobatics. I'd flip over his shield, carve his statue-esque back muscles into a marble sculpture of my smiling face, and leave him in a puddle of intermingling mud and blood. But he kept coming back. Always with some new scar, always with some new piece of blustery smack talk I'm sure he rehearsed while on his way to ambush me.
So I decided I'd groom him—this mongrel with a face held together by fraying cord and rusty metal—until he could maybe offer me an actual challenge. I fast-forwarded time repeatedly. I interfered in all of his encounters with other orcs and made sure he came out on top. I came to actually kinda... care about him. He was a loser and an idiot with a toilet for a brain, but he was my toilet-brainedloser idiot. If another uruk hit him, I got mad. Really mad. Maybe I was jealous? My feelings about him were very complicated, perhaps even kinda fucked up.
Just as I was about to leave for the game's second area, I heard a voice ring out, "MAN FILTH." It was like a puppy, begging me to stay. There was Hura, my shadow, my arch-nemesis, my pet, and my friend. We duked it out one last time. He actually nailed me pretty hard a couple times, and I was proud. I answered back by swinging for the fences, giving it my all, and... off popped his head.
He hasn't appeared again ever since. I really do miss him, and I hope he's OK.
Truth be told, I don't play that much Counter-Strike. Sure, I'll hop into a match here and there, but I enjoy watching high-level Counter-Strike far more than I like mucking around at the bottom of the barrel with my lackluster skills. This is the year 2014, though. Watching games is an entirely viable way to experience them. Counter-Strike provided me some of my favorite video game moments of the year, and I wasn't even in the driver's seat.
Gang Beasts is a local multiplayer game that best resembles a drunken bar brawl as carried out by people with jelly for bones. Characters wing punches with the precision of blind cave fish and flop onto the ground when confronted by such terrifying obstacles as CHAIR or SMALL, INNOCUOUS BOX. It's hilarious to play with friends, despite a relative lack of modes and options. Heck, I watched it take over an entire game festival.
Really though, I think I'm using Gang Beasts as a stand-in for the totality of a great 2014 trend: local multiplayer's re-rise to prominence. On the mainstream side, the nation is currently suffering from incurable Super Smash Bros Mania, and smaller indie developers have provided us with Nidhogg, Towerfall, Samurai Gunn, RocketsRocketsRockets, and tons of others. Online multiplayer is great and all, but there's something special about sitting side-by-side, hurling obscenities (and occasionally pillows) at your best friends. I don't think that will ever change.
At least until we're all replaced by sentient Amiibos.
Necrodancer fuses permadeath roguelikes and Dance Dance Revolution. It should be a hideous Frankenstein monstrosity of a game, all stitches, seams, and gangly left feet. Instead, it's one of the best rhythm games I've played in years.
The first time I played Crypt of the Necrodancer, I was pretty sick. I was running a high fever, and I couldn't do much of, well, anything. So I just sat there and mashed arrow keys to the beat of endlessly catchy tunes, amassing treasure troves of loot until I died horribly. For 15 hours. I, uh, probably should've used some of that time for rest.
Yeah, I said it. Come at me.
Strap in. Things are about to get silly.
- Game of the year if it was 1999: Thief—I'm not talking this year's Thief reboot. That game was, to be frank, garbage—a graceless heap of Thief limbs and organs without a Thief heart or a Thief soul. However, it did lead me to play the original Thief for the first time in my life, and holy shit that game is still incredible. Why are most stealth games so rooted in visual cues now? Did we learn nothing from Thief's amazing sound-centric approach? Standing around a corner and listening to footsteps ebb and flow like a perfect sunset tide of certain doom—waiting for the right moment to make a mad dash—is maddeningly tense. And the level design? From the basic sneaking of Assassins to the bizarre Tomb-Raider-y-ness of Bonehoard to the looming terror of Cathedral? Icing on a legendary cake. People adore this game for a reason.
- Game of the year if it was 2012: Fire Emblem: Awakening—I don't know why it took me so long to get around to playing this one, but it was well worth the wait. Turn-based tactics, permadeath, and dating? Intelligent Systems could've saved themselves some effort and just called it This Is Pretty Much Everything You've Ever Wanted From A Video Game, Nathan Grayson.
- Every game should copy—Mordor's Nemesis system, Transistor's hum button, A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build's hug button. Also the AI from Alien: Isolation. Oh, and while we're at it, can somebody bring back the destruction system from Red Faction: Guerrilla and add that to every video game too? That'd be great, thanks.
- Best use of human flesh: With Those We Love Alive—Sadly I didn't get around to writing about this one, but it's extremely cool. Porpentine's With Those We Love Alive is a beautifully written text game that asks you to draw symbols on your own skin. It's a thing of deep, sometimes scary introspection, a game about examining the truth behind the fronts we put up around others. RPS did a great write-up of it that's worth checking out if you're interested.
- Best use of Barbie doll flesh: How Do You Do It?—This one is simple, but equal parts funny and frank with regards to how we tell kids—especially girls—about sex. In How Do You Do It, you play as a young girl who's curious about what sex actually entails—the mechanics of it, what it means, why people take off their clothes and get under covers in movies—and it just so happens that her mom is out of the house. You've got two naked dolls, a handful of pop culture references, and all the terrified fascination in the world. How many times can you do a sex before mom gets home?
- The 'why is this in my Steam library again?' award: Warehouse and Logistics Simulator—Seriously, I cannot, for the life of me, remember why I bought this game. Maybe I was gonna stream it for laughs? Or maybe past me just wanted to confuse the crap out of future me. If so, well played.
- The 'can we give it a rest?' award: joke 'simulator' games—Grass simulator, rock simulator, goat simulator, etc. Although admittedly, Goat Simulator is kinda great. Just... maybe can we call them something else?
- The Jazzpunk award for being Jazzpunk: Jazzpunk—What I'm saying is, you should really play Jazzpunk. You'll laugh a bunch.
- Best plot twists: Minecraft—Work with me here. Minecraft doesn't really have a story (yet), but its year has been wildly unpredictable. Notch left, Microsoft bought Minecraft for gobs of cash, Telltale announced a story-based spin-off, and Notch bought the most expensive house in Beverly Hills. Remember when Minecraft was a tiny indie game nobody had ever heard of? Me too, but only barely.
- Thank you, Kirk—I am utterly, helplessly addicted to The Lies of Locke Lamora and its sequels. No, they are not games. Yes, they are books. I don't care. I just wanted you to know. Thank you for the recommendation, Kirk.
- Surprise best Telltale game of the year: Tales from the Borderlands—I came into the Telltale fold thanks to The Walking Dead's melodramatic stylings, but Telltale actually has a long history of comedy. With Tales from the Borderlands, a game I really wasn't expecting much from, they made a fine return to form. I laughed a bunch and found myself really liking multiple characters. Good stuff!
- I wish more card games made people be creative: Monstrocards—I really like the idea behind Monstrocards: people draw their own monsters based on zany prompts. Then they use their creations to amuse and defeat their friends. I also played another card game this year (whose name I'm blanking on) where you do a similar thing with stories. Thumbs up to that idea. More creativity, less Cards-Against-Humanity-style filling in blanks.
- Spaaaaaaace—Elite: Dangerous just launched, and it's pretty neat. I am sad that it probably won't win any awards since it came out so late in the year, so I made this award especially for it.
- Butts—It was just, like, a great year for butts. Except when it wasn't.
Am I kidding? Maybe, maybe not. Mountain is a really special thing! Come at me again, I guess.