I am perhaps acting a bit prematurely in posting my favorite games of the year now, but with all the tiresome negativity that has hung over gaming culture like a cloud lately, at times making it difficult for me to remember why I care about games at all, making me wonder if I wouldn’t be happier just walking away from them altogether, I just don’t want to wait another ten days to talk about the games this year that reminded me that I love video games and believe in their ability to contribute far better things to our culture than what they’ve so sadly been contributing lately. (This is also my own little personal gesture of counter-programming to the currently airing Game Awards, which I am not watching. They have a category called “trendiest gamer.” And some people wonder why games still aren’t taken seriously by most people.)
2014 was not a particularly strong year for games. There were many reliably, predictably solid big-budget mainstream entertainments, but, in my limited experience, anyway, there were few games that were truly exciting from a creative standpoint, genuinely innovative or unexpectedly meaningful or beautiful. But the two games at the top of my list are, I think, truly great achievements that play within familiar formats (adventure games and AAA action games) but deliver experiences that are, both narratively and mechanically, unusual, captivating and deeply moving.
10. Mario Kart 8
It’s a great, gorgeous Mario Kart game!
9/8/7: TowerFall Ascension/Samurai Gunn/Nidhogg
What a wonderful year for gleeful, frenetic, accessible multiplayer action. There was a real renaissance this year in competitive games that have the kind of depth that you don’t have to learn dozens of combos to appreciate. They’re about position and timing, and from incredibly simple mechanics they extract an exhilarating variety of thrilling situations. My favorite of the bunch is Nidhogg, for the thrill of its sword fights, the strangeness of its environments, and for the glorious Commodore 64-ness of its soundtrack, its chunky visuals, and its use of color.
6. Bayonetta 2
I may not think that Bayonetta is the sex-positive feminist icon that some think she is, but I do think she has starred in yet another extraordinary action game, a deliriously inventive and energetic epic with far and away the most amazing combat setpieces and the most satisfying combat systems of any game this year.
5. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
I could not believe the endless inspiration on display in the level design of this game. Almost every stage had some moment that made me laugh with glee or made my jaw drop in surprise. But what really makes Tropical Freeze special for me is the way in which it’s not just a bright, cheery platformer. As with the Donkey Kong Country games of the SNES era, Tropical Freeze has a number of moments when the visuals and music and gameplay come together to create something strangely, eerily beautiful.
4/3: Alien: Isolation/Dark Souls 2
I have never feared and hated an enemy in a horror game the way I fear and hate the alien in Isolation. I wrote recently about how, in its unpredictability and its invulnerability, its ability to strike at any moment, the xenomorph became a representation of some very real fears.
Dark Souls 2 allows you to confront your fears in a different way. As I wrote in June,
I like that in Dark Souls 2, there is no real escape from the despair. You are alone in a bleak and desolate landscape. While so many games get so bogged down in lore, rooting their events to a specific time and place that is not our own, Dark Souls 2’s dreamlike narrative simplicity—a curse, a king, a land in despair, ancient evils that must be overcome—lets your quest in it take on all kinds of symbolic meanings.
You see other players as phantoms; they are vaguely defined, can’t be touched, and disappear as quickly as they appear. Like getting bittersweet glimpses into a life you wish you could be playing a more real part in, but that you just can’t reach. Does it make you feel less alone, or more alone? Sometimes I fall asleep or wake up in this body that still often feels all wrong to me, thinking that the effects of a lack of touch can seep into your soul like a sickness, or maybe a curse. But maybe they can also be healed, someday, if you survive the quest.
You can call on other players for help, and then they can have an impact on your world, but it can’t last. As soon as they’re defeated, or you conquer the area’s boss, your companions are sent back to their own games, their own worlds. And I think about how everything is fleeting, how things end before they get started, how there’s no chance for real feeling, for real love, to take hold in our lives without time. But sometimes it can’t be escaped, the reality of facing time alone with our own soul before we can give ourselves to and find ourselves in others, overcoming despair, finding hope or giving up.
2. The Last of Us: Left Behind
There are so many things that make Left Behind extraordinary. It’s downloadable content for a AAA action-adventure game that makes concessions to the genre it’s operating in, with sequences in which you have to kill a bunch of dudes, but it is not primarily about this kind of violence. By using a flashback structure to keep the violent sequences entirely separate from the core story, Left Behind manages to focus on the wonderfully complex and believable relationship between Ellie and her friend Riley. Though Left Behind’s running time is brief, it gives us a strong sense of the multifaceted relationship between the two teens, and as they talk and argue and laugh and play together, as they tell each other jokes and ride carousels and take photos pretend to play video games together, the bond between them comes to feel more real than any bond I’ve ever felt between two on-screen characters in a video game. (I say onscreen because I think that last year’s Gone Home explored similarly nuanced, psychologically complex territory in its own, different way.)
The bond between Ellie and Riley isn’t just developed in cutscenes. The game takes mechanics that we’ve previously associated with fear and dread and brutality and recontextualizes them as the stuff of play, letting us participate in the moments they share. But the exceptional writing is also essential to our investment in these characters. Like real people, Ellie and Riley are scared and guarded, yearning to reveal things to each other but also terrified to ask for what they want. And when the two finally kiss, in a moment of honesty that Left Behind carefully builds up to and earns for its characters, the emotional release is extraordinary.
Left Behind leaves me haunted by big questions, real questions about grief and loss. What does Ellie do, what does a person do, with memories of love when faced with the possibility of never knowing love again? Do you find strength and joy in the recollection? Or does it just make facing your reality that much harder?
Left Behind is a beautiful and heartwrenching story about loss, and about the things that stay with you. It’s also a wonderful example of how AAA games can tell different kinds of stories, if they really want to.
1. Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3
The Daft Punk album Random Access Memories starts with the song “Give Life Back to Music,” which I think is what Daft Punk was consciously trying to do with that record: to give a heart and a soul, to give life, back to electronic music. I think Kentucky Route Zero is the adventure game equivalent. It is trying to recreate the feeling that people like me used to get when playing adventure games–say early Sierra adventure games–that we were actually in some sense coming into contact with another world, a world that existed there in the electron guns and cathode rays.
Tonight at the Video Game Awards, Sierra founders Roberta and Ken Williams received an award for the incredible work they did in shaping the adventure game genre.
Kentucky Route Zero knows its roots. In act 3, you meet a woman named Roberta, a character who is clearly meant to recall King’s Quest creator Roberta Williams.
And then, in this game, in this computer game world that feels more alive with imagination than any game world in recent years, you enter a world within a kind of living computer called Xanadu. Xanadu suggests the early text adventures and graphical adventures that formed the genre KR0 half-exists in.
It is, at least for me, as someone who has always had romantic notions about the worlds that exist inside computers, a transcendent sequence–one of a few transcendent moments in this act. It is a sequence that imbues not just KR0 but games in general with a sense of the magical, the inexplicable. The sense that there’s a ghost, a soul in the machine.
What’s really majestic, though, about Kentucky Route Zero, is the way that it imbues its own American setting, and, by extension, the America in which I live, with that sense of the magical and inexplicable. It’s an America in which people are lost, but looking. An America in which you never know what you might find out on the open road. Loneliness and friendship. Heartache and hope. Silence, music, or something that falls somewhere in between, something you think maybe you heard but you’re not quite sure, what with all the static on the radio.
Kentucky Route Zero is a game I can’t get out of my heart. I don’t know what it all means, but I know that it is speaking to me.
did u kno that undertale is made in gamemaker. toby fox sure knows how to turn shit into gold.
actually, gamemaker is a really powerful engine for making 2d games. it’s given us not only undertale but also nuclear throne, gunpoint, spelunky, hyper light drifter, samurai gunn, risk of rain, hotline miami, valdis story: abyssal city, nidhogg, and super crate box, to name a few
The moment you know you’ve made a mistake is when there’s a weird feeling in the pit of your stomach, and you suddenly feel the need to get extremely defensive, even if you’re not sure why.
That happened earlier today when I made a tweet, which has since been deleted. The gist is that I pointed people towards what my reporting suggested was the creator of the rather shameless 2048 app on iOS and Android.
The tweet raised the idea of potential harassment by loyal followers of mine in a way that I’ve long since advocated against. A random person who made that tweet does not have to worry about it, but a random person with nearly 53,000 followers has to think long and hard about a tweet like that.
It is often easy to forget you have that kind of megaphone.
The tweet came about because of a discussion on our morning show, in which Alex and I broke down some reflections on the Threes story from earlier this week. I mentioned how much time I’d spent trying to track down this particular designer: Facebook, Twitter, email, phone. I tried everything, and nothing ever came back. It frustrated the hell out of me, and it’s not like I could jump on a flight and knock on his door. But I’d done my due diligence.
Still, it bothered me that I didn’t hear from him. I wanted his side of the story in my piece. It would have made it a better article, and would have rounded out my desire to hear from all sides of this complicated issue.
It kept clawing away at me. But I wrote my story, and that should have been it. If anyone wanted to get up in arms, the evidence was presented to them in the story for them to make their argument. I didn’t need to encourage a little army to do it for me. What this designer did was (in my eyes) unethical but not illegal. I really didn’t need to be banging down the digital door to better make my point. I’d done that with a story that’s been read by more than nearly 50,000 people. A journalist presents his evidence and leaves.
This is all the more important because it’s about Threes, a game that was developed in the same office that I sometimes find myself in. (The game was done when I started working out of there.) Of course, working in that office means I’m never going to write a review of Threes, Samurai Gunn, or anything else that’s produced out of that office. I had no desire to write about Threes, since it seemed like plenty of people were doing that already. But when I realized I could talk to some of the faces behind the “clones,” when I realized the designer was sitting next to me and we could have a long chat about his game, it seemed like a story worth pursuing, even if I’d have to try even harder to make sure my story came across as truth seeking.
The article pulls that off, I think. But the tweet doesn’t–it sounds like someone bitter trying to take advantage of an army.
I’m not just a journalist. Sometimes I’m an advocate. In this case, though, I was trying to be a journalist, and the size of my audience, the tone of my tweet, crossed that line. That’s going to happen, and it probably won’t be the last time. I realize that, and that’s why my stomach felt weird. You tend to feel that way when you make a mistake, since owning up to a mistake is hard. I try to make sure I’m always doing that. Though it can sometimes feel like people have it out for you, sometimes they have a point, too.
I try to listen. Even when we disagree, I always try to listen.