This was kind of a strange year for gaming. After the barn burner year of 2013, it seems that those who had mastered narrative and gameplay had retreated. Levine liquified the Bioshock team in a bizarre move and with the console generations shifting many big names have been quiet. In their place, sequels and skinner boxes abounded in 2014. Two of the ten top selling games are Call of Duty’s (one is a year old now), while the two original IPs on that list, Watch_Dogs and Destiny, both debuted to mass griping about their derivative gameplay. Still, with Kickstarter bleeding the margins, experimentation has been high in the field and that is reflected in the variety of critic choices for the top spot. Many chose games like Shadows of Mordor based on fun gameplay or a new mechanic. While I’m sure these kinds of games are good, it’s also disappointing that games as expression seems to have hit a rough patch. As always, indie’s are better at solving this problem than the industry at large, and I unfortunately haven’t gotten to some heralded 2014 greats like This War of Mine and the Banner Saga.
Maybe part of the problem with the larger side of the industry is that games have become too good at mollifying consumers. While I don’t necessarily agree with Ebert about the possibilities of games and art, his central point still stands. The more fun a game is, the less likely it is to be saying something. The industry has moved towards providing us a really bitching Kinkade painting with games like Destiny, where the lore is optional. To get wrapped up in the world often runs counter to the mechanics of fun, the imperative of progress. Checking off all of the map markers and tasks in a game rarely expands the world, instead it often makes the world smaller by revealing how much of it is based on fulfilling our own obsessive compulsive tendencies. Of course, like a movie, it doesn’t necessarily have to be high art to be entertaining. Fighting games, a time honored genre, are almost pure Tetris adrenaline, all style and speed with barely any thought tying it all together. Sometimes though, subtlety can still drip through the cracks in gameplay. A few of the games I adored in 2014 were affecting, and a few just played great. Here they are:
1. Game of the Year – Dark Souls 2
Occasionally, narrative and gameplay are kindred spirits. When From Software started developing Demon’s Souls in 2007, I wonder if the plagued and decayed antiquity setting had crystallized yet. It seems entirely plausible that the focus on cycles of death and memory organically gave rise to a kingdom that was in the process of forgetting itself, numbed by so many repeated horrors. The few important and powerful beings that survived, that represented order in the ruins, were the targets for your nameless slayer. Dark Souls 2 continues the tradition, this time doubling down on the haze. Whereas in the first two Souls games a king was always waiting for a destined clash, in Dark Souls 2 the throne is empty and when you finally find King Venrick he is huge with power but his mind is empty. The King has succumbed to the dementia and entropy shared with his subjects in the broken land. Your mission is equally unclear, you are set to wander simply because you are drawn to the accursed land like a moth. For many of the bedraggled merchants and like-minded warriors you meet, the rationale for coming has faded and despair is starting to take hold.
A witch’s early prediction proves true; you will die over and over again. But even as despair takes hold so does the thrill of battle. The battle grinder in the ruins will transform you from staggering welp into prince of blades. That rise, not given but earned, is what the Soul’s games promise. Dark Souls 2 has tweaked the formula to allow for more experimentation. The veil on the mechanics has been lifted somewhat and tinkerers will find more flexibility. It’s quite possible to change approaches wildly and quickly, from flame whip wielding maniac to sword and shield paladin purifier. The karmic cycle is a playground, death is inevitable but so is your return. From Software has created an amazing jungle gym, punishing and rewarding in equal measure. There’s also more lore and characters than before, although the larger world shaking events remain as cryptic as ever. You’ll keep cutting through the misty lands until even the pretense of plot has been forgotten; you will become one of the crazed undead searching for more power. Dark Souls 2 is easy to get lost in, and the best of 2014.
2. The Wolf Among Us
Fairy tales always beg the question; what comes after happily ever after? While most people would acknowledge that true happiness is a fickle mistress, Telltale drops you in the deep end and then Wolf Among Us shows you its scars. Based on the comic series “Fables,” the Wolf Among Us finds the various denizens of the Grimm stories hunkering down in a grimy New York City neighborhood, scraping by to maintain a fragment of the life they once knew. Sharing DNA with Into the Woods and American Gods, The Wolf Among Us also takes many cues from noir detective fiction. There’s dames, fistfights, and murders in Fabletown, and you’re the menacing wall between the innocent(?) citizens and blood thirsty killers. Here the fairy tale stories spice the detective yarn, creating lived in details about people you feel you know and pleasantly surprising you by revealing how some of these well known characters have ended up.
You play as Bigby, formerly the Big Bad Wolf, a semi-recluse trying to suppress his old instincts and do right by the various other fables in town. Or, perhaps, you play Bigby, a blood thirsty arrogant cop trying to save these people from themselves by cramming justice down their throats. It’s a Telltale game so the choice is yours. As in their previous efforts, the branches and dialogues always lead to Rome, but the illusion of choice is much more effective this time out due to the nature of your decisions. In Walking Dead you often had to choose who to let live (and who to let die). Unfortunately, the narrative demands parsimony and usually everything equaled out after a chapter or so. You might call this cynicism appropriate to the bleak setting, but it took the wind out of a supposedly ultimate decision. On the other hand, in the Wolf Among Us your decisions are often made while trying to suss out the truth. The truth doesn’t change even if you take different approaches, the murderer will be the same person ultimately. The result is a tale that is flavored by your choices, an investigation unspun by a stoic softy or a lunatic as you so choose. The only sore spot is after every episode they reveal how your choices stack up against everyone else’s. I know people like this option, but I think it should be buried in a menu somewhere. It breaks the spell that The Wolf Amon Us weaves, putting you in a fugue state while Bigby feels out which choice is the best bad option, when to show the fist and when to use it. A Wolf Among Us is a slick, effective journey that uses its mastery of the illusion of choice to entangle you in a damn fine detective tale.
Well friends, it seems free to play is here to stay. What began with browser based hobbies and pleas for donations has blown up into slick skinner box products that have systems to rival standard releases. While all free to play games have a little Candy Crush DNA, it stands to reason that collectible card games probably invented microtransactions before most of the people playing Hearthstone were even born. A CCG is a natural fit; money fuels the card engine, the best decks require the rarest cards, and the games thrive when you have lots of people to play against. Bravo to Blizzard then for filing down the monetizing incisors and creating an incredible painless experience, allowing the patient to build up large collections without spending a dime. And unlike your local card shop where you can’t avoid the rich kid, the hidden matchmaking computations perfected by Blizzard over the years in Starcraft and WoW ensure that you’re always playing people about your own level. There’s not much art in it, but there’s a lot of craft. Even the framing story admits as much – Hearthstone is a game being played in a tavern somewhere in the Warcraft universe. The cards draw from all corners that universe to build a colorful experience.
What puts Hearthstone a little higher up the list is their commitment to experimentation. Within the last year of release they’ve already pumped out a huge randomizing expansion and an intense single player dungeon that challenges you to build decks creatively. It probably makes sense that one of the largest gaming companies in the world can bring an immaculate level of polish to a card game, but Blizzard is also a good fit. Their specialty has always been to polish and itinerate on a small scale, moving numbers around and balancing initiatives. It’s less than shocking that Hearthstone has proven popular under their stewardship, and for now it seems like it will continue to grow for years to come. It’s safe, but sometimes a safe bet is a good bet.
4. BlazBlue Chrono Phantasma
Blazblue is a ridiculous fighting fantasia. What sets it apart from the crowd is a commitment to its design. There’s not a single pallet swap in the crowd of fighters, and each one triggers a bizarre unique ability at the press of a button. Chronophantasm is the latest in an overarching plot that is constructed from two parts Back to the Future, one part LSD, and three parts anime bullshit. While the mix is volatile, the design and character spills over into the mechanics. The movements and actions of the pugilists feels like part of a larger whole, implying that your current fight may actually be part of a grand narrative. It doesn’t hurt that CP is constructed with ArcSystem’s usual technical excellence, layering systems upon systems but giving you the tools to start using them. Combo breakers, hightened states, fatalities, and rapid cancelling create the milui of a game where both fighters can be all over the screen at once. To get good you really would have to drill down, but even without the competitive commitment Blazblue remains one of the most fun fighting game for a solo player to tool around in. These games are more like episodes than full releases so this is sort of a token spot on the list, but if ArcSystems keeps making them I’ll keep coming back for more.
From the makers of (the excellent) Ridiculous Fishing, Luftrausers is a deadly aeronautics simulator set in some quasi WWII/III alternate dimension. The story is simple, the submarine transporting your secret weapon jet has been ambushed and sunk, and after narrowly escaping you’re tasked with taking as many of the bastards with you as you can. Unlike the calm and friendly progression of Ridiculous Fishing, Luftrausers is a hellish warscape version of Asteroids from which you will never escape. To tell you the truth I’m a little worried about our Scandinavian friends. Oh well, might as well enjoy their impeccable design work yet again. After a few runs you can start modifying your death trap, including things like dumb fire missiles and engines that let you briefly hide under the sea, all of which is done with a few simple clicks. Every new addition has a pretty clear effect, changing the feel of your new warplane in noticeable ways. One similarity to Ridiculous Fishing is that a new run is never more than a single button press away, sending you drifting up into the clouds again for that last moment of quiet, before the battleships, enemy fighters, submarines, laser aces, and megablimps press in again. Nice knowing you…
Another free to play card game, Cardhunter couldn’t be more different than Hearthstone. Honestly the name is a bit of a misnomer, as Cardhunter is about the search for weapons, armor, and relics in one of the dozens of dungeons. Borrowing liberally from Hero Quest and it’s ilk, Cardhunters is part board game, in addition to being perhaps the best looking and running version of a basement Dungeons and Dragons experience in a browser window. Successes and failures are even determined by dice rolls. Items give you cards which give actions to your band of heroes, doubling up equipment as deck construction. Rounds are played back and forth until movement and attack options are exhausted. The result is a highly tactical ballet, with heroes and monsters dancing in and out of range to deal those lethal blows, with your card hand as the resource pool. It sounds complicated, but the game has been highly tweaked so that you can be effective every turn. The challenge comes from understanding your opponent’s cards, how they interact with your attacks and what openings they leave.
Creative adaptation is emphasized in the amazing single player campaign, where asymmetrical warfare against the computer’s monsters leads you to a variety of skirmishes that are like puzzles. Goblins are heavy on block cards, while hulking trolls require you to load up on movement cards so you can dance out of their pulverizing range. A light hearted meta story flavors the missions – you are playing Cardhunter in someone’s basement, the DM is your friend Gary, and he may or may not have a crush on the pizza girl. Each hero and monster has it’s own little paper cutout figure thats stands up on the board. Honestly if Cardhunter adds in co-op at some point down the line this will be the perfect facsimile of setting up in the garage. And it’s all free! Or freemium, I should say. There is a large number or missions that are locked behind a paywall, without even a grindy method to unlock them. Cash will also give you a pretty significant boost in your item collection. Luckily this doesn’t really matter in the enjoyable singleplayer, which by default has dozens of story missions and where being underpowered makes the puzzle of each encounter more fun. The multiplayer is mayhem though, as the population is a little too low for a nice ranking system and you’ll run up against some monsters with complete legendary sets. Still, as the multiplayer is more of the end-game raid replacement, you should have months of fun in the spectacular main offering. I heartily recommend plunging into the dungeons of grid printed fantasy land and scrounging up some cardboard treasure.
Best of The Rest
These are some games I got to this year that were uniformly excellent, but they just didn’t happen to be released in 2014. Damn you technicalities! Well, I’m talking about them anyway.
When people talk about morality and the illusion of choice in games, more often than not they are criticizing a tacked on good/evil choice system. Enter Papers Please, the newest thesis statement on morality in games. You play the role of a border inspector, counting yourself lucky to be able to accept one of the few jobs in a bizarro-Soviet state and scratch together enough cash to keep your family alive. Refugees and revolutionaries alike are piling up outside the border trying to get through you, and the weight of an approval stamp has far reaching implications. The “game” is doing your job, which becomes increasingly difficult as rules and regulations start to bury you. After several days on the job, your choices will come to define you. Are you the simpering bureaucrat who splits a husband and wife because of a missing document? The short sighted revolutionary who is quickly exposed and sent to rot in a cell? Or are you the me-first authoritarian, throwing others in jail if it helps keep your own head above water? Maybe you’re a little of everything, and the answer may surprise you. Papers Please is a huge argument for the power of interactive media, exposing how goal oriented tasks can change and challenge the player by enveloping them in the world, choices, and limitations of someone else’s life. It’s probably the most powerful statement on the banality of evil in the entirety of gaming, achieved through simple (though clever) design and mechanics. Over the last year this is the only game I played which showed how the medium can mature, and needs to be played by any fans of the form.
This Japanese dungeon crawler echos the old side scroller beat em ups like TMNT 2 and Gauntlet, except with glorious HD sprites and five times the attack options. The story is thoroughly pot boiler fantasy, but the gameplay is full screen exploding chaos that supports up to four living and breathing nerds on your couch. You should probably only invite nerds over because this game is ludicrously objectifying. Like, I don’t understand how these guys turned the stills into the project lead without dying of embarrassment. If you can get past that though there are amazing bosses, tricky challenges, and a pretty substantial RPG edge to keep you side scrolling to victory. Flying dwarfs forever.
Spelunky is a rogue-like based on Indiana Jones. Well specifically the first part of Raiders. And technically you’re playing that guy who said “throw me the idol” and died two minutes later. An incredibly lethal array of traps and monsters stands between you and each progressively deeper exit. Death comes very quickly, but with each dive you’ll figure out a little bit more. The first few times you play catch with a stone you end up braining yourself, but after dozens of deaths you’ll be daviding the goliath spiders, hoarding bombs, and triggering death traps with the bodies of your foes. Spelunky has an incredible variety of resources, interactions, and obstacles for the player to learn and master, all set behind its cutesy exterior. This makes it one of the deepest and tightest rogue indies of recent years.
Metroidvania in a mexican wrestling setting.The Guac is good looking and plays smooth as butter. You’re supernatural luchador is tasked with setting the worlds of life and death back in order by body slamming and smashing skeletons, sending them bouncing against the edges of the screen. While it keeps things simple, the layering of new techniques adds a fighting game like dimension which will reward quick button presses with full screen juggles. As befitting it’s agave backwater setting, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously; one of your earned abilities is the power to turn into a chicken. The simple and true endings reveal something of a whimsical philosophy- a dual take on life after either loss or success which suggests that the degree to which each changes you may not be that vast. This game is easy to enjoy and I’m excited to see what else comes out of developer Drinkbox in the future.
Well there’s no shortage of great games to play. See you next year.
Originally published on Synthetic Error February 6, 2015