Before I get into what I felt were the best games of 2014, that I played, I want to talk about the concept of list itself. It may seem unnecessary. All that may seem necessary is a bare bones ten line list of the titles and be done with it. That wouldn’t be acceptable in my case. I’ve kind of painted myself into a corner regarding the issue and now have to put my money where my mouth is.
I’ve deliberated over more than just the items of the list. Content and format are equally important. Presentation of what will collectively say something is just as important as the items themselves. We lose that in the face of just wanted to churn them out. But I’ve said what I’ve needed to say with regards to top X list. It’s all applicable here.
Over the last few years I have done a number of formats with regards to my game of the year list. From top 5s to top 25s. I’ve included honorable mentions and kept it only to those on the lists. I’ve even forsaken presenting it as a list entirely and instead as an award to be won from a list of contenders. The first step was determining what format my game of the year would take. I think a straight top X list is more traditional and most acceptable. No need to make what is supposed to be a fun, but meaningful, exercise more difficult for myself.
Then I questioned whether the X in Top X list should be 10. If there are more games worthy of mention should I increase it to 15 or 20. Other critics I have a great respect for have done the same, both in the past and now. On the other hand, in shrinking the number it forces the curator to be more decisive in what gets included. While there may be more than 10 games worth honoring, forcing the issues to 10 forces me to be more discerning and thoughtful about the games I am including.
Even then do I include a gaggle of honorable mentions that missed being in the top 10 for whatever reason, giving a single line description of why I didn’t feel they were good enough in lieu of the full description a list entry would receive. It gives a nod to the games I felt were meritorious of mention, just not good enough to make it. It would also highlight the message of the list by highlighting what was left out. On the other hand it distracts from the list itself.
What gets included is just as important as what is left out. Any list is saying something about its subject matter on that basis. In this case the game of the year list reflects not just on the year and the games, but upon myself and my personal tastes.
I don’t go in ahead of time with a predetermined notion of what I’m saying with any given list. I didn’t have a notion of what TYIVGB would say about the year gone by until it had finally formed. The act of curation itself determines what is being said. Every cut, every time I say yes to an item helps form the theme. As does every item to which I eventually say no. The meaning of the curation becomes a part of the editing process.
Finally, do I place them in an arbitrary numerical order of what I felt was increasing quality or do I simply list them alphabetically allowing it to speak as a collective group? I’ve seen great lists come out of both practices and I was tempted by what I could do with both. I even considered splitting the difference and doing alphabetical and mentioning somewhere what order they would go in or simply just labeling one my game of the year in the description.
I don’t know what goes through the minds of my fellow critics when it comes time for the end of year ritual. In a certain way the deliberation process of curating a top ten list can impart more about our feelings of the works in question than the list by itself ever will. After all, how can we understand our true feelings of what gets left off the list without it ever being a part of the list. While the list will ultimately say something about ourselves, the works and the year, in what measure will that happen? Where will the focus be and what can be said about any of it at all. The devil is in the details.
Those details come from how they are imparted. All the above questions aren’t answered by asking myself what arbitrary format do I want to adhere to. It really is the other way around. The answers to the above questions come from figuring out what I want to say. In the end, I found I wanted to say much.
I may spend more time thinking and worrying about such things. But then somebody has to. This list is me and I, as a critic, this list. You dear reader may only skim it, but it should be as right as possible just the same. Someone has to care, if not the author then who?
My standard disclaimer of “I have not played everything either in total or worthy of consideration” of course applies. I have not played blockbuster favorites like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Alien: Isolation, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Bayonetta 2, Maro Kart 8, Wolfenstein: The New Orde, etc. In fact, I only played one AAA game this year and it is the occupant of the top slot in my worst games of the year should I ever feel compelled to create such a list. I won’t mention it here, because this is a list of celebration. ((It’s easy enough to figure out anyway, if you follow my work at all.)) Nor have I played all the smaller indie games that might have made it on had I done so. The Talos Principle, My Uncle Works for Nintendo, PT, Terror Aboard The Speedwell, Never Alone, Valiant Hearts, etc.
Without further adieu, let’s get started.
10. Desert Golfing
There’s a simple beauty to Desert Golfing. The strange formations that make up the desert, the slightly modulating color scheme of the sand that shifts from a pale beige to deep orange to mauve, purple, blue and green, the seeming infinity of the course, the soft psft of the ball hitting the sand after the low solid thwak of the stroke all come together to create a setting for poetry in motion.
Desert Golfing‘s real beauty comes from the absolute right tuning of the physics. The minute choices made in designing how the ball interacts with sand and slopes create a natural tension and release. Over time I learned the nuances of game to circumvent what earlier looked to be impossible. Bouncing the ball off slopes to kill the momentum so it doesn’t roll down the other side of the hill, aiming the ball slightly downward so instead of popping over an edge it follows the curve like a water drop on glass. Traversal can be a beautiful thing to behold unto itself.
It’s a little incredible that a simple game, with the same mechanics as Angry Birds can become such an object of beauty. It’s not an exceptional game because of its simplicity, but a game that elevates its simple elements to be exceptional. I’ve played plenty of simple games and they’ve all run out of steam eventually. When I open other mobile games I sigh as I now have to play a game, while quick and that I can easily quit seem more like an obligation that doesn’t engender the same joy it once did. I never did that with Desert Golfing. Still haven’t all these months later. I still opening it with satisfaction and knock out a few more holes in those in between moments.
Supergirant Game’s follow up to their freshmen 2011 classic Bastion, Transistor didn’t have reception many were expecting. It’s a difficult work to get into or have an immediate emotional connection with. It’s a fable of the ultimate end of a democratic state. Not one that is co-opted or usurped, but one where the will of the masses are slavishly adhered to. They dictated the world into incoherent mess of psudo-freedom and everything was dying a slow death of ennui.
Transistor uses art and artists as metaphors for ideas and people. In world overrun with democracy and the subject to public’s whims, the world makes little sense and ultimately breaks for too many people. Those who wish to see beyond the surface engagement and immediate enjoyment of things find themselves adrift and alienated from their own lives. It’s not an accident that it takes place in a digital world. Where there are constant inputs of meaningless ephemera and where what even looks to be concrete can be deleted and reformed at anyone’s whim. The challenge in the game is that it will not break down any of this for you. It’s all information on the periphery that frames what is going on, but requires the attention and dedication to interpretation on the part of the player.
Many of the studio’s recognizable hallmarks are there. (Or rather it repeats elements without copying them outright that they become hallmarks.) There is a customizable combat system, this time about how you upgrade a weapon with abilities rather than choosing which weapons to enter the fray. There is a scalable difficulty system, hindering programs instead of demanding gods. And a voice over, a ill informed lover instead of omnipresent paternal figure. Even the character’s silence is transformed from gameism of the silent protagonist to ever present reminder of a victimization. And all of it in service to providing the tools and material for the player to parse out the meaning for themselves.
8. The Banner Saga
There are a lot of stories about combat in video games. We have stories about small skirmishes between squad, stories of large armies engaging in dances of strategy and tactics and all too many stories of the lone powerhouse slaughtering whole battalions by themselves. In all of that fighting and killing, it is very rare that we have an honest to god war story.
There is fighting in war, there is killing in war and there is dying in war, but there is also much more to war than what happens on the battlefield. There are more than soldiers in war. The Banner Saga is one of the few games I’ve ever played that is telling a war story.
Through a combination of reducing the number of battles and ingratiating each one of them with their own individualistic meaning, coupled along with the long overland journey of fleeing refugees and having to manage their survival. Each half of the game created two very different feelings in me. The near forced march of the caravan and the story events that would pop up where feelings of worry and feeling the crushing pressure of leadership one didn’t ask for. As each day counted off and another supply of food was used, would I make it to he next town? Could I spend what capital of renown I had earned to level up one of my heroes or save it to buy resources? Then a call to arms would occur. Invading dredge, bandits or other desperate people on the road would thrown those feelings into sharp relief with the confrontation of something much simpler. There I would feel the Viking rush of combat and landing a devastating blow with axe and bow.
Along with this focus on the smaller events of a traveling caravan are the asides and lore that give an understanding to the events unfolding have an epic scope even if we cannot see them. The macro balanced with the micro. But it is the micro that gives The Banner Saga its heft and emotional impact.
7. Gods Will Be Watching
I can imagine to anyone who actually pays attention to my work, this one coming as a bit of a shock. “Wasn’t that game almost universally panned?” “Didn’t Eric himself give it 3 out of 10 in his own review?” Yes on both counts. It was a hard game to like as the soul crushing difficulty of the opening two levels are enough to stop making you think of the game in terms of the ethics of what you are doing and exasperating number crunching simulator. It’s the only real complaint I had with the game, but it’s such a fundamental problem that undermines anything else the work was trying to do. Recently, I learned it had been patched out with multiple new game modes and difficulty levels erasing the problem.
Even without that, the simple fact of the matter is I could not stop thinking about Gods Will Be Watching. My mind would randomly drift back to the philosophy it was trying to convey. Time after time I found myself considering the question, “what is the greater good?” The players in this little drama each emphatically declare their answer and we are meant to follow through with our character. Ultimately it goes beyond the consideration of the righteousness of terrorism in the face of such oppressive evil thanks to one of the greatest twists I’ve seen in the past few years. It doesn’t upend our understanding of the scenario, but our understanding of the game.
The fact that Gods Will Be Watching put an enormous amount of pressure on me to act, often without thinking everything completely through, despite time only moving forward once you’ve committed to an action, means it hit that sweet spot emotional resonance. It’s is tough to play, not only for random chance sometimes screwing you out of a beneficial outcome, or other people getting in the way of a successful run, it can get very brutal very quickly, despite it’s elongated pixel art style. It put me in the shoes of a terrorist and an infiltrator and I ended up thinking like both. And hell, it taught me a little about Nietzsche.
I don’t know who Necrophone games are or the people behind that developer label, but I desperately want to play whatever their next game turns out to be. Jazzpunk is a game that only a very particular type of mind could dream up. Jazzpunk is what you would get if you had a 60s spy thriller written by the cast of Monty Python and it was directed by a digital age Salvador Dahli. Probably not, but that combination feels correct. Garish colors, ridiculous, yet oddly appropriate cutaways and playing with the character’s perception of reality as a metaphor for the artificiality of the game reality itself all form a psychedelic pastiche of absurdity. How any of it works is a testament of the skill of the neophyte studio.
A satire of both espionage and video games themselves, Jazzpunk manages to succeed where so many other games have tried and failed. Video games are ridiculous and it may be time to not only acknowledge that, but embrace that for artistic ends. Jazzpunk is okay with it. At times it feels like Jazzpunk is utterly ecstatic at having thrown off the chains of fidelity and realism as gateways to immersion. Of course, it could just equally be the set up for a bit. At times Jazzpunk has some biting criticisms of the medium as an ontological being and other times Jazzpunk is easing back and asking you to just accept what is going on without worry.
But then that is the definition of absurdism. Recognizing that nothing can be changed from whatever immutable destiny the universe has in store for us, that we can’t fight it, we should enjoy the ride and laugh at it instead. Oh did I laugh. Jazzpunk is one of the few games whose attempts at comedy actually manage to land, thanks to much of Jazzpunk being player instigated if not fully player driven. Through a simply reframing of otherwise generic video game activities, Jazzpunk exposes and valorizes Jazzpunk‘s and by extension video game’s artificiality. Is it any wonder Adult Swim decided to publish Jazzpunk?
Jazzpunk is glorious. Jazzpunk is singular. I don’t think anyone other than Jazzpunk‘s creators could have made Jazzpunk.
NaissanceE is a revelation in environmental storytelling. Not because there is a story to be told in the traditional sense. It’s that no game has ever been quite as effective at evoking fear through geometry. NaissanceE is playing with your psyche. It is a master class in level design as the entire meaning of the game is conveyed through it. There is no traditional narrative to be gleaned. There are no messages written on the walls or audio logs to collect. In fact, it doesn’t look like people have ever existed here.
The lighting, the architecture, the scale, the sense of spatial awareness, all of it conveys the notion that you are not welcome here. Where ever here may be or what it may represent. The world of NaissanceE is not real. It can’t be real. It has shades of a real place, an occasional table and doors are everywhere, but nothing built makes any kind of nominal sense. The only kind of sense, is an allegorical one.
After hours of existing within the rules of how the world is constructed, you’d think you would get used to it. Yet, you never do. It plays on a very primal sense of our minds, always poking and prodding in ways we can’t ever feel comfortable in. Eventually, NaissanceE becomes a place of real mind fuckery. Using light and shadow to create not just spaces that are hard to be in, but places that turn our sense of place just by looking at them inside out. It’s violent to the senses, a purgatory of grays and whites. A never ending cycle of disturbing existence. It’s existential horror without the monster or end in sight. We do what we do, because that is what we do. Endless and forever in circles.
I love it. I love feeling this crafted anxiety. I felt more in danger in this game than any other I played this year and thanks to that connection I felt more alive. True lasting emotional response is a powerful thing for any art work to produce.
4. Kentucky Route Zero Act III
Last year, I put Kentucky Route Zero in the top spot on my list. It was unfinished, with only two episodes and two intermissions to its name, but it was no less brilliant and no less deserving. A year on, again, I find Kentucky Route Zero to be one of the best games of the year. In fact, Act III might be the best episode of the lot yet.
Everyone who has played it singles out the bar scene where Junebug gets on stage and with your help composes a song of haunting melody and thematic meaning. For good reason, it is a standout scene in a game made up of stand out scenes. Though this one might shine so brightly as to dim the other great material around it. Conway has always been a sort of an everyman, the trope of a man with one more job to do. We’ve gotten hints of its before, but in Act III, Conway’s past gets some real fleshing out. The past of a lot of characters gets some real fleshing out.
The problem with a lot of message works is that they get caught up in that message that they neglect the humanity of the people it concerns. Kentucky Route Zero never does that. While its making its points about down turned economies and the inescapable spiral of debt and control, it reminds us that these are people, not ciphers, on this journey. Many will point to the Junebug’s performance in the bar as the best part of the episode, for me it’s at the end where the game, in a sly moment of upending the systems of interaction, takes control of the cursor away from the player as Conway’s own addiction takes control away from him.
Last year, on the Moving Pixels Podcast, our host read out, in full, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Kahn. Kentucky Route Zero deserves to be in such company and such company is an every growing, informal list I have of influences, references and other art that it feels cousins to.
3. 80 Days
I know I should be above such considerations, but I still find it astonishing that a mobile game is one of my top 3 games of the year. Only a few years ago the format was the dumping ground for endless supply of quick pick up and play puzzle games, physics games and other low mental processing power ephemera. Times change quick. Yesterday’s truism is not even tomorrow’s punchline, but today’s.
80 Days is made so that you can quickly pick up and play it for a minute or two before doing something else, but it rewards a greater attention to both playing it and the material it covers. I wrote, at great length, on how I see 80 Days addresses the racism, sexism and imperialism of the source material. It doesn’t accept them on face, but challenges those values as we would challenge anyone with those views nowadays. The world presented is arguable better one that existed in history, mostly because the world and people within do not blindly accept Victorian notions of how the world is.
I find myself more drawn to interactive fiction like 80 Days, because they contain a greater depth of that artistic notion where the creator is saying something through their output. 80 Days is not about the bet to make it around the world in the titular timeframe. It is not about the adventure of travel. It is not about seeing new places before moving on to the next leg of the journey. We cannot play tourist, even if that is what we are. The game wont let us. We are confronted by the realities of these places.
The detached distance to our sense of presence means we pay closer attention to the words in front of us. Any playthrough is recognizable as a retelling of Around the World in Eighty Days, but it is something different. It is something that wants to comment and critique our position as a tourist and what we take for granted both as character and as audience. In the end, 80 Days is travel for the right reasons. We do it because we come away with a better understanding of the world and not because it makes us feel special.
2. The Fall
In the past few years, there has been a lot of great works of science fiction coming out of video games. There will always be space operas and alien shooting galleries, but we’ve also gotten a lot of socially conscious, humanistic and philosophical style science fiction stories as well. You can add The Fall to that growing list.
Apparently it’s only the first episode of an in progress trilogy, however, The Fall tells a complete story as is. A augmented combat suit falls from space and crashed through the ground into an underground complex. The pilot is unresponsive and A.R.I.D., the onboard AI, not knowing if the pilot is alive or dead has to seek medical attention. Playing on the Asimov’s three laws of robotics, the suit is constrained by its own such laws. So far so good. Soon you’ll have to start undermining A.R.I.D.’s programming in order to make progress and ultimately complete the goal of seeking medical attention.
The Fall starts out with a simple enough premise and even an interesting execution to point-and-click adventure game systems. Like other entries on this list, what the game has you doing is often itself the backdrop to what it is really about. Where many other sci-fi stories will make AI self aware and explore the fallout, The Fall is itself more interested in that process of emerging consciousness. It’s an existentialist tale of achieving self aware enlightenment by undermining and eventually breaking the dogmatic chains of the previous constrained thought. We are watching, even if we don’t realize it, a new intelligence being born before our eyes, through the conversations with other AI, the game’s puzzles and even the glitches in the UI.
The scope is really small, but the game feels a lot bigger. You may only be working through around 4 basement floors and the goal is to save a single life, but the implications of the narrative give it that much larger feel. I love tightly crafted, just long enough games. They don’t dilute their impact. It was a huge bonus for The Fall that it hit nearly every one of my soft spots. Philosophical, small, adventure game, effort put into the writing. We need more games like this.
1. Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut
I’ll admit, I’m a lot less analytical when it comes processing art than I probably should be, but I find having a dogma of how I work, set ahead of time, constraining. Pretty much my entire appreciation of a work stems from how much of a wallop it hit me with. Whether that may be emotionally or intellectually. This is true from any of the games that have made my game of the year lists. Any game where my hands are shaking as I take off the headphones or that causes me to stare at the wall in a daze for several minutes after it has ended, is guaranteed a good reception on my part. This goes for everything not just games. Just the other day I had nearly a full blown existential crisis after walking out into the night after a movie.
I say all this whenever it happens to me over twitter. I don’t exaggerate. Some works cause me to freeze up in some mixture of contemplation at my own empty existence and simple emotional buffering as I sit in the presence of something greater than myself.
Dragonfall did this to me.
Early in the year I thought it was a great game and it would take a hell of a game to surpass it. I was even excited at the prospect. Yet, as the months went by, nothing ever did. Sure plenty of games reached for the same heights and, in the case of a few, I thought I had one that beat it. You can see several of them above. But when I considered it, they all paled in comparison for the mark this oft overlooked piece of DLC left on me. In a way I felt like the character did at the end of the grand adventure with world shaking consequences.
Later on I was able to explain what Dragonfall was doing and all the things it was saying. It has probably the best world building of any game I’ve ever played. All of it is in service to the theme and not to the meticulous archivist’s dream of knowing everything needed to create a living breathing alternative reality. Could the Berlin of the Shadowrun universe possibly exist? In a manner of speaking, yes and no. It’s an exploration of the multitudes of Anarchist philosophy and its actual implementation when compressed against the nuances and wrinkles of the real world, not the pure utopian theory.
It’s gets even better. Dragonfall actually caused me to go research anarchism, specifically German and other European style anarchism. Tangential learning at its best. As my reading went on, what I learned about the thinkers, the collectives, the treatises and their place in history then circled back to the game and made me realized the greater depths embedded within the game. I don’t know if it was on purpose thanks to meticulous research and intent or just a happy accident from thinking artists combining the various elements in a way that made sense. Either way we have a practical functioning argument of what such a society could look like.
But all of that is after the fact material. In that moment, with the credits rolling, me starting at that wall considering my decision of what was to be done with Berlin, that feeling was what cemented its place as my game of the year all those months ago.
That was 2014. That was my 2014. This was a great year for list as well as games. Every end of year list had so little overlap, each tuned to the tastes and perception of the critic. It was a smorgasbord of personalization and choice. There is more of me in this list than I’m really used to. But there it is. My games of the year.