2014 feels like it’s actually been 5 years crammed into one. So much has happened! I was skimming over a list of game releases for this year and kept thinking “wait, wait that only came out THIS YEAR??”
Anyway, once again my usual caveat: these aren’t necessarily games I think were THE best games of the year, just ones that happened to consume me personally in a special way. And on that note, this is games that I played for the first time this year. On we go…
Nidhogg brought the office together. In a communal act of mutual stabbing. I love this game because of how much of a badass it made me feel like even when I was flailing helplessly, and it really did bring together a bunch of Insomniacs. My only trouble with the game is that it is exhausting, so I can pretty much ONLY play it in a setting with a big group of people where the contestants get cycled in and out to give me a rest from dueling.
I don’t normally seek out adventure games, but I loved playing this. I think it is purely because the world is so beautiful, and everything is so responsive and the animated feedback is so delightful that it is a joy to just wander the world and click on everything. That’s the part of adventure games that normally puts me off, but Broken Age did a fantastic job of making that part of the interaction wonderful in its own right.
A triple-town roguelike? What does that even mean? This game is harsh and has a narrow appeal but I love it for its design risks. The way you interact with the world is bizarre, but they spend a long time with it. They did a fantastic job of conveying a harsh, lonely tone while still keeping whimsical visuals. My one qualm with the game is that they nailed the tone *too* well. When I finally died, I was far too depressed to pick it up again. I am glad it was made for the people who love it.
The best social game I’ve played in ages! By which I mean it became one of those games that I was not “allowed” to play until the whole crew of friends could gather over to watch me terrify myself. It felt like ages since there was a really solid, terrifying, AAA survival-horror game, as most survival-horror tended to turn the way of the action shooter in that space. I also revel in appreciation in this game’s attention to setting. Everything from the environment art to the UI just nails that “future tech as imagined in the 70s” vibe, and every piece of tech in the game serves the narrative. It’s been a long, LONG time since I’ve been so full of admiration for a realistically-rendered game on the topic of visuals and aesthetic. The game is not without its flaws (it has more fake-endings than it needs, and gets utterly exhausting), but they nail the feel of the world SO hard, and I love it. Here’s me being terrified, for your viewing pleasure:
Is it bad form to put your own game on your own top games list? Probably. But I don’t care. I worked on Sunset Overdrive in pre-production and early production before moving off onto Slow Down, Bull, so I was able to play the game as more of a consumer in its final form. It was like seeing how all the DNA I helped manufacture got put to use in content-construction, which was a bit surreal, but satisfying. And it is wonderfully carefree and delightful and just so much fun to move around the world! I just love it! Shut up!
If this is a surprise to anyone then we need to get to know one another better. This game, you guys, I swear… I don’t even like roguelikes. I DON’T EVEN LIKE ROGUELIKES. But, oh God, I love this game, you guys. Let me count the ways.
It is one of the first non-competitive games I’ve played in a fiercely long time where I can notice myself improving skill-wise over time. A lot of single-player games panic a bit when it comes to progression. No one finishes them, afterall, so the things we do to move people along and make them feel like they are getting more powerful can be somewhat artificial. Weapon progression, skill unlocks, etc. There is nothing wrong with this model and many masses of people enjoy it.
But there is something about seeing yourself get better at something over the course of months that is deeply, proudly satisfying. The game is hard and unforgiving but does an excellent job of making it easy to try again. There are new characters to try, and they are all charming without being cutesy, so when you die three times in a row, instead of quitting you just decide to maybe try out that intriguing chicken. And you flail around for awhile and exclaim “I am terrible I have no idea what I’m doing,” but you learn without even intending to. And you get better without even intending to. And when you get farther than you’ve ever gotten, even if you die immediately, it is a milestone worth cheering about.
Then there’s the loop. No I don’t mean the loop where you beat the throne and start over at 1_1, I mean the loop of the between-level mutation selection moment. Here is why this is the most brilliant thing for a game like this. The core game is fast and twitchy and demanding of every ounce of your attention, and there are little moment-to-moment delights all the time with narrow misses and efficient kills and surprises and the wonderful, intoxicating feedback that you tend to expect from a Vlambeer game. But it is exhausting, and when you get the mutation selection screen between levels it is exactly the sort of mental break you need for the exact right amount of time.
The number of times where I’ve gotten to that screen and noticed myself physically slump into my chair in relief for just a moment long enough to sit back up and jump back into the fray is telling. But it’s not just a “I have a breather where I don’t have to worry about dying” sort of break, as you have to EARN that mutation screen and the stress build-up when you don’t is noticeable. It’s the fact that, for just a brief moment, your brain suddenly has to shift gears and solve a new type of problem. You’re no longer watching every inch of the screen for the next threat and a new target, but you have to sort of pull yourself way out of that threatened state and think in a different way. Even if you instantly see which mutation you know you want and click it right away, there’s still that brief trigger of a moment where your brain is using a different set of problem solving skills. And that is rejuvenating in a really important way. It’s like the little dip in the flow channel that keeps your momentum up instead of grinding you into the dirt. And it doesn’t take much, right? It’s just a single decision. It is exactly how much it needs to be and it makes the flow of the entire game painfully elegant.
So here’s another reason I love this game. They are so sneaky with the tone. SO SNEAKY. So subtle. I love it and I hate it because of what it does to me. It’s a trick, really, and as kind-of-a-trickster myself, I appreciate a good, subtle trick. They lure you in thinking it’s all mindless fun. Just ‘splosions and screenshake, everybody! Mindless, shootin fun! But it’s all trickery. This game is so melancholy, and so very sad, but it presents in indirect ways. They keep you distracted with fun gameplay so they can stab you with the tone when you’re not paying attention, which probably means it affects way more people who would be turned away by a more direct approach.
I notice the most when I’m feeling sad, and so think to play as a distraction to cheer myself up (mistake! Always!). Then I finish feeling more sad than ever. NUCLEAR THRONE WHY ARE YOU SO SAD! Those snowbots, they are so scared. Look at them they behave like frightened animals! LOOK AT THEM. I’m a horrible person. A horrible crystal. Everything is so hard. Being alive is so hard. WHY IS BEING ALIVE SO HARD. It’s just heart-wrenching.
And they get that across so sneakily. So masterfully. Sneaky bastards.
This game, you guys.
And then there’s the game’s community! (What, did you think I was done gushing?) That’s what lured me in to begin with, honestly, when unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate?) bouts of insomnia woke me up at stupid-o’clock all spring and I was able to wander into the dev streams and sit among people and feel kind of nice. And the steam community is so nice, and the fanart is glorious. When I was playing, say, League of Legends, even when I was playing every day, I did not feel like I was part of the LoL community.
But I almost feel like I’m kind of a part of this community.
Maybe not in there all the way, maybe more like a trickster-crow that perches on the very edges and sidles in a little bit from time to time with great caution, then flits back. Almost-kind-of-part of the community.
If you know me well, and know what a painfully difficult time I have with belonging to communities, you will see that this is KIND OF A BIG DEAL.
So that was 2014. I apologize for soaking up most of this post with Nuclear Throne but…wait…no I don’t. I don’t apologize for anything. Deal with it.