With 2014 behind us, we look to the future. It was a year of ups and downs, and on the whole, I can’t say I’m sad to put it behind me. Gamergate pissed all over our culture, buggy games ruined our free time, and DDoSing crippled many of our favorite online games for days. It was a year that left a lot of lessons for the game industry, and we can only hope that, moving forward, we can learn from them.
These are, in my opinion, the ten best games of 2014.
10 – Mario Kart 8
Listen, man- this game isn’t Double Dash. Odds are, we’ll never have another kart racer that so masterfully handled level design, core gameplay, and presentation. It says something about Mario Kart, though, where even the third best entry in the series (behind Double Dash and 64, naturally) is top ten of the year material. The series took a dramatic misstep with Mario Kart Wii, but 7 started the road to redemption, and 8 took it all the way home. The level design is inspired, the core gameplay strikes a great balance between rewarding skill and giving new players the tools to compete, and it’s just a beautiful game.
For all this, though, it’s most dramatic to note that it could be the best Mario Kart ever. Being the first series entry with DLC, there’s no reason to think that they couldn’t make major additions that massively improve the game. Two seater kart mode? I can dream. Until then, it’s still one of the best party games of this generation, and that’s considering some steep competition.
9 – Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
It seems like there is just no middle ground when it comes to this game. People either think that its systems show the future of triple A game development, creating a path forward that innovates and excites… or can’t see anything but a tonal mess of a game that bores them to tears. Yes, the writing is bad. The Lord of the Rings license harms more than helps, the main character is depressingly boring, their explanations for events are garbage, the ending is embarrassing, and the combat is just Arkham Asylum with a sword.
Here’s the thing: I don’t care. Obviously, if it did those things well, it would be much higher on this list, but the Nemesis system alone earns it a place on this list. The first draft of a system where AI tracks and comments on past encounters with the player, allowing your gameplay experiences to shape how the AI behaves, was bound to have some kinks, so it’s incredible what a good job they did with this revolutionary system on their first try. I’ve written about how making systems that create content for you is the future of this industry, and this is just another perfect example. The stories I have of orc captains that I crossed swords with are better than any tale Call of Duty has spun, and nobody wrote them. They naturally occurred as a result of this AI system, and that’s awesome.
I hope they get the other stuff right in the inevitable sequel. I hope they disconnect themselves from LotR canon and feel free to get more crazy, that they give us a reason to care about our main character, and that the plot isn’t complete garbage. But most of all, I hope everyone else steals this AI system for their game, because it’s the coolest thing triple A has done in years.
8 – Transistor
The most fundamentally sad game I’ve played all year. From the word go, it’s clear that Transistor isn’t going to have a happy ending. The vast, beautiful city around you is all but dead, your voice has been stolen, and your lover is trapped inside a sword. Your quest for revenge even sours as you realize how little malicious intent there was- none of this should have happened. Nobody wanted this. Human hubris caused this mess, and the only question is if anyone will survive to regret it.
I can’t really say much more. It made me cry, both for its beauty and its tragedy. You should play it.
7 – Octodad
For all that (almost) no one in Octodad’s world suspects his true nature, I immediately caught the scent of a killer game before this title came out. I’m one of the lucky ones- I waited for the game to come out on PS4 to play it, and thus dodged some questionable endgame content that was changed for the console release. If more people had played it the way I had, I think it’d be on a lot more lists.
My most shining memory of this game is playing the aquarium level with my parents and older sister watching, staring with fascination as I struggled to climb an out of control escalator. As I chanted “right, left, right, left” with increasing volume, Octodad slowly winning out against the current, the tension built to a breaking point, and the cheer as I reached the top. Octodad is the most sincere, innocent fun of the year, and it’s goddamn hysterical.
6 – Nuclear Throne
You did not reach the Nuclear Throne.
So sayeth the game over screen for this shooter roguelike, every time I die. It’s true, it doesn’t have to say that- one of the additions in the weekly additions to the game is that there is, now, a Nuclear Throne to reach. I’m just not good enough to reach this new content. The game I chided earlier this year [link] for coming so close to Spelunky goodness, and then missing the mark hasn’t corrected the issues I had with it since. What’s there, though, was already so good, and the additions made since even better, that it’s still one of the best games I played this year. Chaotic arcade-y action with great music, beautiful pixel graphics, and an arsenal of weapons to make any Call of Duty green with envy.
There’s no brilliant writing, there’s no incredible world building. There is just you, a lightning rifle, and a whole lot of mutants to kill. Jump in, get killed, and do it all again. Above all things, remember what it’s like to play a shooter that doesn’t need to distract you from its gameplay with a million side features, and is just fun.
5 – The Wolf Among Us
I enjoyed The Walking Dead Season One, as it was incredibly well written and realized, but it was hard for me to get too invested in anything involving zombies. The zombie is the most tired, uncreative enemy in our industry, and seeing new zombie games on Steam makes me roll my eyes every time. When Telltale decided to take a similar approach with the “fairy tales living among us” series Fables as a detective serial, I was all in.
In reality this proved something of a problem: Walking Dead, this game is not. Even more than Walking Dead, your choices are extremely limited. Go into this game thinking you’ll be making hard choices about how to survive, and you’ll be disappointed. The game still has some dramatic, plot-changing choices, but it’s really more about how you shape Bigby’s character. Whereas the zombie game’s Lee was an interesting character that you could sometimes make more or less of a good guy through some interesting choices, that is entirely The Wolf Among Us’s concern.
Bigby Wolf, the Big Bad Wolf, is the reason other fairy tales in this universe lock their doors at night. Back before they were all in the human world, he was unstoppable and impossible to reason with. Now, in the human world, he’s trying to change his image- he’s the no-nonsense sheriff of Fabletown. Is this position an excuse for him to work out his aggression? Is he struggling to be a legitimate help to his fellow Fables? Is he, in fact, losing touch with his “wolf” side? All of these are elements of Bigby’s character, and how you choose to explore them as you track down this mystery is the real appeal of the game.
The pacing occasionally stumbles, but as a whole, I enjoyed it better than The Walking Dead, and I’m thrilled to see what they do with this license next.
4 – Dragon Age Inquisition
For years, people have asked BioWare to make an RPG with an open world akin to the Elder Scrolls games. With Inquisition, they’ve finally done it, and it… isn’t quite what we’d hoped? The world feels disjointed, many of the quests are boring, the quest areas are tedious to traverse, and wouldn’t you know it, but they seem to have been inspired by the bugginess of Bethesda’s games as well. The freedom to wander is perhaps not Dragon Age Inquisition’s strongest suit, but the tenants that made the series incredible to begin with are still there- a fleshed-out world, delightful companions, and an epic quest to embark on with them at your side.
Inquisition’s companions (mostly) don’t feel as strong as 1 or 2’s to me, and they still haven’t nailed combat in a way that I really enjoy, but dammit, it’s more Dragon Age. More fascinating fantasy culture clashes, politics, and war in a world I’ve already come to know and love. It’s the second best Dragon Age, but like Mario Kart, that’s more than enough to earn a spot on my Game of the Year list.
3 – Jazzpunk
Octodad made me laugh through its mechanics, and that’s not an easy thing to do. Games aren’t great at humor, but occasionally systems are set up in a way that cause humor, by intent or accident. Jazzpunk doesn’t really have any noteworthy systems: its humor is entirely handmade jokes. And they work. My god, do they work. That doesn’t happen in this medium. At times a game will make you chuckle, but I literally cannot name another game that just had me laughing over and over again with just writing.
The Stanley Parable left me cold, Monkey Island elicited little more than a smirk, and South Park is just… no. Maybe I’m a tough nut to crack when it comes to game humor. Jazzpunk is so goddamn funny that it will stagger you.
2 – 80 Days
Interactive Fiction is BACK. Okay, it never left, but I’ve never considered an IF one of the games of the year before. 80 Days is gaming’s best example of how it’s about the journey, not the destination. Just like the Jules Verne classic, the phone game follows Jean Passeportout, valet to English gentleman Phineas Fogg, and the duo’s daring attempt to circumvent the globe in eighty days. What route will you take? Over the ice of the north, around Africa and India, straight through Russia- whatever your plan, be sure that fate has different ideas. A valet must be agile, lest you find yourself sleeping under a bridge in New York City.
The efficiency of your course is a fun challenge, but the real draw of the game is the stories that happen along the way. Solve a murder, chase a pickpocket, attempt the world’s first trek to the North Pole: at every turn, the steampunk reimagined world will surprise and delight with sharp writing and astonishing variety. Whether you’re leading a mutiny on the waters of the Pacific, or praying your hobbled-together balloon will make it to land before falling apart, 80 Days is an absolute joy to explore.
1 – The Fall
When this game came out, I didn’t even know what it was. Forget it looking good or bad, I’d never heard of it. An intriguing video preview got me to pick it up, and instead of the momentary diversion I expected I got the best game of the year. The focus on Asimov’s Laws of Robotics and its loopholes is so much smarter and more engaging than the competition that it’s almost embarrassing. The characters are as charming as they are tragic, and the tale as a whole would be great as a book, but as an interactive experience it’s second to nothing I saw this year- or quite a few others.
Many are calling this year in gaming the year of disappointment, and they ain’t just whistlin’ dixie. Even in a better year, though, The Fall would end up on the top of the pile. It’s an incredible story, and it’s the Game of the Year.