The most interesting parts of 2014's games for me were the relationships. The love and hate I felt for my enemies in Shadow of Mordor. The tenderness with which I cooed over my Miis and Sims. The surprising amount of joy I felt when killing Nazis in Wolfenstein.
Every relationship is unique, of course. It's no different when it comes to the ones I made with video games, the characters inside of them, or the other people with which I was playing them. So let's take a look at each of my top ten games in turn.
Mario Kart 8 is the closest a game came to perfection this year. I measure this in a simple way: did I ever feel bored when playing something? Boredom isn't always a bad thing, mind you—tedium is a big part of what I love about some of my other favorite games this year. But Mario Kart is the one game that never offered me a dull moment. It's online multiplayer is especially wonderful in this regard—there's always someone online ready to challenge me to a race. At first I was annoyed at not being able to speak to these competitors more often. But there's a unique beauty to the relative silence in Mario Kart 8, one that makes competing online all the more interesting. Whether I win or lose a particular race, I still relish the opportunity to zoom through its many vibrant, breathtakingly gorgeous racetracks every time I step back into it.
Like many other shooter fans, I did not expect to like the new Wolfenstein. I wanted to dislike it, even. The thought of getting yet another Nazi-killing simulator just seemed offensively unimaginative. Couldn't shooters come up with something, anything else at this point? But then I played The New Order, and I fell in love with killing Nazis all over again. Color me pleasantly surprised!
There's something comforting about leaning on reliable villains, I realized after playing Wolfenstein. But also: originality is overrated.
Far Cry 4 is a deeply flawed game in many ways. But what I've always appreciated about Far Cry is that it's flawed in interesting ways. That means a lot to me; most games that are bad are uninterestingly so. Thew new Far Cry is a bizarre and often ambitious attempt to correct some of the missteps taken in Far Cry 3. And while it doesn't accomplish everything it set out to, Far Cry 4 still gave me many of my most memorable experiences playing games this year. It's incredible co-op mode was a wonderful, unexpected addition that offers an exciting glimpse into the future of Far Cry. As I said in my review, I'm still looking forward to that future more than anything else. But I continue to be intrigued by its present as well—the odd, whimsical nature of its slapstick humor, the hilarity of its benign bugs, the serene beauty of its majestic scenery. And, of course, the devil birds. Seriously: fuck those birds.
As a play on a somewhat obscure form of party and turn-based role-playing game, The Stick of Truth was an enjoyable, albeit imperfect, romp through the South Park universe. But what really took me aback about this game was the way it let me identify with my player character as a shy Jewish boy just trying to fit in at school. I applaud the courage The Stick Of Truth demonstrated here. Hopefully, other games will take inspiration from it in the future.
Transistor has one of the most airtight, intriguing, and satisfying combat systems I've ever encountered in a game. It combined the fast-paced, explosive action of a dungeon-crawler like Bastion or Diablo with the tactical nuance of the best XCOM games. And better yet, it nested all of this inside of a moving story that added a strong current of emotional urgency to every fight. It was a real looker, too.
Similar to Mario Kart, Threes is one game I just can't seem to stop playing. Unlike Mario Kart, I don't seem to ever get better at Threes. What impresses me about it, though, is that I don't seem to mind the fact that I consistently get embarrassingly low scores in Threes. Something about shifting those adorable little tiles back and forth is satisfying enough in its own right. It's become my go-to game to play during any commute. Or pretty much any moment that I want to distract myself.
It's hard to separate Flappy Bird's quality as a game from the explosiveness of its meteoric rise to the top of the mobile gaming charts and its sudden, controversial disappearance. But the game's brutally unforgiving difficulty made the journey to every successive green pipe hilariously, unforgettable grueling. Inching towards a new high score in this game was so insufferable that it ultimately made me stop playing it. But every time I managed to get just one step further, I felt an incredible rush—a sensation of palpable, deliciously tangible victory that was only ever approximated in another 2014 game when I slid past a superior player in Mario Kart 8 and crossed the finish line before them. It was never quite as intense in that other game, though—probably because everything leading up to it wasn't quite as painful either. I wish there were more robust games that showed the same audacious gall that Flappy Bird did in so frustrating, even alienating, its own players.
Another controversial game whose release was overshadowed by legions of disaffected fans, The Sims 4 continues to be one of the most fascinating games for me to play on a regular basis. I still lose myself for entire afternoons in this game, watching the drama of my virtual pets unfold. As I alluded to when discussing Mario Kart a moment ago, The Sims 4 is definitely one of the games that began to bore me as I sunk more time into it. But it also showed me that boredom doesn't have to be a bad thing. It's a game full of kind, quiet moments—ones that I cherish all the more for their mundane regularity.
Shadow of Mordor is an interesting counterpoint to The Sims for me, because the two games are surprisingly similar despite being, at face value, completely different. But here's the thing about Mordor. Yes, it's exceedingly, disgustingly violent. And yes, all it really lets you do is kill things. But what I find so intriguing about its oft-praised "nemesis system" is the way that Mordor uses strictly violent tools to develop intimate relationships between the player and his or her opponents. Mordor represents a huge step forward in terms of player-driven stories, one that other games are going to have to do a lot to follow up on.
Man, what a weird game Tomodachi Life is. I'll admit, I've stepped away from it recently. But hearing all the strange things my Miis had to say was one of my favorite parts of 2014. I don't know if I'll remember playing Tomodachi Life as much as I'll look back fondly at trying to learn how to listen to the characters in the wonderfully eccentric virtual ant-farm I'd built inside my handheld console. "I finally feel I understand the meaning of life," my Mii told me one morning on the subway as I was riding down to work. "I won't spoil it for you." Ok, YanYan, I remember thinking as I peered into his house through the top screen of my 3DS. Whatever you say.
I scoffed, then. But I still felt like I really was looking in on some unique alternate universe. One that was brimming with life, in its own special way.
There are a few games that I wish I could have included here that I didn't get to spend enough time with yet. Destiny, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and the two new versions of Super Smash Bros. come to mind. Even with these gaps in my 2014 lineup, though, this has been a year full of wonderful surprises and moments of genuine intimacy. Let's hope 2015 brings some of its own as well.