I don’t think I really kept on top of the current, blockbuster games in 2014 in the same way I have in previous years. This was in part because of my stubborn refusal to join the Next Generation of consoles for most of the year, but more because I just haven’t had the headspace for really intellectually engaged and sensorially overwhelming games this year. What I’ve wanted this year has been grinding, mostly. After a day of teaching or crunching out words for my PhD, I’ve just wanted to sit down in front of something mindless and go through the motions and watch the numbers go up for a while. I continued to play a lot of Final Fantasy XII and, once it came out on Vita, an absurd amount of Borderlands 2. Just decent, uncritical treadmill games I could just do for a while.
Yet, I did buy a WiiU when Mario Kart 8 was released, and I bought a PlayStation 4 when Destiny came out. So in the end I still played quite a diverse range of games across a range of platforms. 2014 was also a really great year for iOS games, and there’s more than a few of those on this list. I also tried to get better in 2014 at playing weird little games on itch.io and the sort, little one-session games that are cool things to encounter for five minutes or so. So it is a pretty diverse list, in the end! And a list that I don’t feel comfortable ranking in any way. So instead, this year my favourite games are presented in alphabetical order. There’s 20 games on this list for no real reason other than I got to twenty games and that seemed like a neat number.
So here are some of my favourite games that I played in 2014.
A Dark Room – Doublespeak Games (iPad)
Candy Box was one of my favourite games of last year. It was an absurd game with its tongue fairly planted in its cheek that managed to raise very interesting questions about casual games, grinding, labour, and all sorts of other things. John Brindle’s essay is still perhaps the best thing you could hope to read about that game.
A Dark Room, then, feels like an attempt to take the genre of game that Candy Box instigated and to make a serious game in that form. Well, maybe ‘serious’ is a poor choice of words as Candy Box is not necessarily an ‘unserious’ game. Perhaps ‘sincere’ is a better option. A Dark Room is not self-aware or parodying tropes in the same way Candy Box does; rather, it takes what was engaging about Candy Box itself and uses those foundations to build an evocative and fascinating experience.
What most stands out about A Dark Room is that it is well written. Every sparsely worded sentence and isolated noun is so delicately chosen so as to reinforce the atmosphere the game is trying to convey. Through these black/white words on an ever-darkening screen, so much is conveyed about this world and the characters in it. But never too much. So much is left unsaid. For most of the game you don’t know if this world is your world, if it is the past or the future or the present. You know just enough to gain a sense of lonely atmosphere. And then, as you stoke your fire and build your village and attract more people, more and more becomes apparent about this world. That learning to read between the lines is so satisfying, and owes itself to the mature craft of the game’s writing.
I always find myself comparing videogames to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. DayZ is like The Road in the way it conveys a dual sense of loneliness and ubiquitous terror. Fuel is like The Road in the way this world is so barren and empty and scarred and big and, again, lonely. A Dark Room is like The Road in a more formal, literary way. The way sentences are formed as though we have a limited supply of words before we run out; the way dialogue is muted and incorporated into narration. A Dark Room is oppressive the way The Road is oppressive, and I think that’s a really commendable accomplishment.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software, High Moon Studios (PlayStation 4)
When Advanced Warfare first came out, much was made of the hilariously ill-considered quick-time event that asks the player to “Press Square to pay your respects”. It seemed to stand for everything wrong with this style of videogame design mentality: input a button press, output an emotion. It is, truly, a laughable moment in the game, which is disappointing because the rest of the stage is one of the strongest in the entire game.
Walking away from the funeral, Kevin Spacey hands your brotagonist a business card, which he looks down at in such a way to ensure the stump of the arm you lost in the first mission is visible. Behind you, the honour guard are firing their rifles into the air, and one of the bangs seamlessly shifts into a flash of lightning and thunder and suddenly you are looking down at a gun in the rain and your stump is now a biotic limb and you are storming Camp David to save the President. After some shooting and other action, the simulation fades away and, instead, you are in a giant hanger performing a military exercise as part of your training for the Atlus private military. You step out of the hangar into a jeep and, with Spacey, get a tour of the facilities before heading back to the hangar and jumping back into the simulation.
The way the stage goes from quiet funeral to in media res combat to Half-Life-opening-simulator back to combat-known-to-be-fake is superbly done. Advanced Warfare is what the Call of Duty series does best done very well: absurd, Michael-Bay-esque action story that pushes you from one set-piece to another with no time to stop and think about why you are actually doing any of this. It’s exactly the kind of game that justifies the update to a ‘next gen’ piece of hardware that gives you the same games at a higher resolution and with fancier lighting. After the dreadful disappointment that was Call of Duty: Ghosts, that seemed to cherrypick and then emulate all the least-interesting segments of the Modern Warfare games, Advanced Warfare is just a rollocking good time summer action flick.
Most surprisingly is that, for once, the tried-and-tested mechanical skeleton of the Call of Duty franchise has been able to evolve in ways that allow Advanced Warfare to actually feel fresh at times. This isn’t science-fiction so much as science-militaristic-fantasy, but it allows the developers to fill the game with well-conceived gadgets and devices. The threat grenade is a personal favourite, outlining all enemies as red sprites, through walls and smoke alike. Watching a man in a mech-suit unfold his fist into a gatling gun is pretty satisfying as well.
Most interesting about Advanced Warfare, though, is its commitment to a single character. Whereas previous Call of Duty games typically jump between characters, all of Advanced Warfare is spent with a single character. As the multiple characters of previous games is what I most appreciate about the franchise, I am loathe to admit how well this works for Advanced Warfare. But where Advanced Warfare sticks to a single character, it instead jumps around with time, skipping forward by months or years at a time. The entire game takes place over the course of a decade, which in itself is able to give the silly narrative just enough gravitas to keep you committed.
Ultimately, Advanced Warfare feels like the Call of Duty franchise finally accepting what it has been for a long time: militaristic fantasy with hardly a little toe in the door of actual realism. I for one hope this acceptance persists with whatever studios are thrown at the future games.
Alien: Isolation – Creative Assembly (PlayStation 4)
I know I said I was not actually ranking this list but if I had to choose an absolute favourite game of the year, it would be a dead tie between Isolation and Mario Kart 8. Isolation is far from perfect. It’s too long, for one, and has no real satisfying narrative pay-off that justifies that length. It has a user-interface problem where the golden glow that flags the item you are looking for in a crowded environment doesn’t actually initiate until you are right on top of the item, leading to wasted minutes walking back and forward trying to find a damn spanner. The sparse checkpointing, while something I would not change, can often be incredibly frustrating. The third-person cut-scenes add nothing to the game, run at a nauseatingly low framerate, and (thankfully) disappear entirely about halfway through the game.
But ultimately none of this really concerns me because Isolation is one of those games that does exactly what I want a game to do: it aims for a certain tone, for a certain atmosphere, for a certain thematic sensation, and every single element of the game works together to make that happen. This is not a pre-determined genre skeleton with a new story wrapped around it; to its bones, Isolation is about simulating the feel of the Alien universe and the terror felt of that’s universes characters as they are hunted by the creature. In this, the game is an incredible success.
The best games, those games that are so clearly aiming for a very specific atmosphere and tone, make this clear before you even reach the main menu. Last year, The Last of Us did it with the way “Sony Computer Entertainment Europe presents” and “Naughty Dog presents” just appear suddenly, rather than fade in, and disappear no less suddenly. You get this sense of mute curtness, of stripped-back-ness, that echoes through the whole game. When you boot up Isolation, the first thing you get is the drums and bombast of the Twentieth Century Fox logo, while the logo itself is jumping and skitting around like you just pressed ‘play’ on the VHS of Alien that you recorded off free-to-air television ten years ago and have watched way too much since. Before you even reach the menu, what the game is going for is clear: the retro-futurism (though, at the time, it was just futurism) of the first Alien film, the dark solitude of an MS-DOS screen, the eerie ghosts of a VHS display.
I have already written extensive notes about Isolation here, and I’ll try not to just re-write that entire post, but the game gets so much right. Even as someone without any particularly high stakes in the Alien franchise (I saw the first three films for the first time in the last eighteen months), it was hard not to appreciate the game’s commitment to its parent text. It seems obvious, but the choice to create a science-fiction world as it would have been imagined in the late 1970s is inspired, with the flickering of fluorescent lights and blurrrring of computer terminals and padded walks and arcane mechanical contraptions and clunky buttons (this development diary about how they create the authentic VHS noise is really interesting). The only thing that lets the game down is the dreadfully out of place exposition graffiti in the early stages of the game. This disappears after not too long, thankfully, but then hits you again when you return to the game’s early locations late in the game, long after you forgot about their blight.
And then there is the alien itself, perhaps the most remarkable NPC I have ever encountered in a videogame. I’ve previously used the analogy of a computer virus to explain it: it’s this anomaly that the creators haven’t crafted so much as let loose. The game doesn’t have coded encounters so much as it has simple objectives (go here, get this thing) that are difficult to do because of this damn autonomous segment of code lurking the corridors that no one has any real control over. If horror games generally use the metaphor of a haunted house ride, where you ride your train (your avatar’s body) past various frightening things, then Isolation is like visiting Jurassic Park after the electric fences have gone down. Those scary-but-ultimately-harmless attractions are now wandering around freely with nothing to hold them back.
Which means, a lot of the time, the game is fundamentally unfair. Twenty minutes from the previous checkpoint the alien will just appear out of a vent right in front of you are you are absolutely fucked. Whereas other stealth games are eventually readable, their enemies ‘gameable’, in Isolation you have a sense that you will never fully understand this alien entity, that you will never truly be able to predict its behaviour the way you might a guard in Metal Gear Solid. Further, where other stealth games give you new gadgets over time to help you feel more clever and more creative, the gadgets you craft in Isolation are only ever a different (but no more certain) item that might get you out of a corner. For the overwhelming majority of the game, you have nothing to defend yourself except your pure, simple movement through a space. Flares, pistols, even flamethrowers don’t necessarily make you more powerful, they just mean you are slightly less likely to die right now.
It’s the game’s commitment to tone, to atmosphere, to the kinds of behaviour their character would and would not do, to a general sense of disempowerment (so refreshing in a current blockbuster game!) that make me so enamoured by this game. It’s imperfect in the way Far Cry 2 is imperfect: all the more wonderful and beautiful and important for those imperfections.
Bernband – Tom Van Den Boogart (PC/Mac)
There’s a scene in one of the prequel Star Wars films—Attack of the Clones, I think—where Anakin and Obi Wan chase an assassin through the streets of the city-planet-place that serves as the ‘home base’ for most of the prequel films. It was a striking scene, I thought, because it was one of the very rare occasions in any of the Star Wars films where you get a real sense of these planets as places where people are just going about with their daily lives, and not just setting for some science-fantasy story.
Bernband reminds me of that scene but instead of rushing around in a chase scene, you are just exploring the vibrant nightlife of this alien city. You explore this rather vertical world by visiting various bars, walking over overpasses, getting lost in backstreets and airducts. Paths back around onto themselves, different clubs look the same, and help you get disorientated and end up in the same neighbourhood you left. At some point, while trying to find your way back home, you might stumble onto an all-night classroom or a quiet solo jazz recital or a closed-down shopping mall.
The game’s low-fi visual style lends itself to an imaginative reading, with your eyes filling in the blanks of the chunky, pixelated world. For several years now I’ve found myself increasingly excited about independent developers rediscovering the sprite-based early days of the first-person game, not unlike they’ve rediscovered NES-like pixelart in previous years. Vlambeer’s Gun Godz is perhaps the best example of this re-emergence I want to see happen more broadly, but it’s also exciting to see the visual style deployed in a non-violent game like Bernband. An exploratory ‘walking sim’ that looks more like Wolfenstein 3D than Dear Esther.
Bernband is free and well worth spending an evening exploring.
Desert Golfing – Justin Smith (iOS)
Mobile game of the year. Desert Golfing is a beautifully realised, confidently restrained, and ultimately mature game that provides both immediate gratification and glacial, slowly emerging knowledge. What is required of you is immediately clear: pull back like you are playing Angry Birds and flick the little white ball towards the hole. But it is not immediately clear why this game is so well loved and so popular. I’ve seen many people dismiss it as pretentious or another case of the Emperor’s clothes where we all just fall way too in love with a superficial indie game that seems meaningful. This, I think, is just the typical cycle of these things: a really simple idea well executed leads people to celebrate it; more people play it because it is celebrated, expected some grandiose, life-changing experience and instead find only a really simple idea well executed.
Why it is so loved is because of the slow, gradual knowledge you learn by playing the game. You learn just how to stop the ball on an upwards slope, or how to aim a ball at a slope with just the right amount of power so that it slows right down as it bounces up high and lands on the flat above the slope (whereas aiming directly at that flat would just have it roll off the far side). After a while, each new hole you encounter feels like a sentence constructed in Desert Golfing’s visual language: you look at the upward and downward slopes, the plateaus and the cliffs and the overhangs, and think about how they go together and how they might be conquered. From a small vocabulary of gradients emerges an endless variety of holes, each requiring a certain amount of reading comprehension.
There is also how the game is framed: no menus, no title screens, no interludes between levels; just the camera scrolling across to the next segment of desert, never allowing you to go back and fix your mistakes or to improve on past performances. Everybody’s desert is the same, and everybody’s score is continually going up. The game doesn’t even really classify it as a score, really; just your number of strokes so far displayed atop the screen, for you to pay attention to or not. Only once does any form of leaderboard come into play, but it passes as quickly as that one cloud, that one rock, or that one cactus.
There’s a real sense of exploration that is surprising for such a simple game. The environments can be truly striking at times, helped by the gradual change in colour as (I imagine) the sun sets and rises again. I find myself playing not just because I enjoy the golfing, but to see what else is out there, a sensation I wrote about for Reverse Shot earlier this year.
Destiny – Bungie (PlayStation 4)
I did not take an immediate shine to Destiny. After over a decade of appreciating Bungie’s Halo titles and most of a year grinding through Borderlands 2 on my Vita, Destiny just felt superficial. It had the craftspersonship, it was well made, but that didn’t seem to redeem the fact that the thing that was well made was still not particularly interesting. A bog-standard sci-fi shooter with a dreadfully told story and some horrible voice-acting. I said as much in my notes about the game.
Months later, however, I am still regularly playing Destiny, and I am going to regularly play Destiny for some time to come. While it is truly an easy game to dismiss on the surface, Destiny hides its achievements and its unique offerings. What looks to be at first a tacked-on ‘endgame’, after you complete the story, is where the actual game begins, where you can now (thankfully) ignore the story points (except when the game forces you to rewatch an unskippable cutscene) and focus on obtaining those rare resources to incrementally improve your character. At this stage, you are not just grinding enemies for XP, but fulfilling certain tasks in the hope of finding certain items to improve yourself a certain way. Which, on one hand, just makes it less grinding and more playing a slot machine, but the pay-off is also more satisfying in its incrementality.
I felt like I finally got what Destiny was going for when I realised that I should not be approaching it as though it was any other hardcore shooter, but instead like a casual game. Destiny wants to be played less like Borderlands 2 and more like Jetpack Joyride or Candy Crush Saga. The thing with casual games, you see, is not that their players are any less committed than ‘hardcore’ players, but they offer a much more flexible commitment: a half-hour everyday instead of a five hour binge once a week. Destiny, with its daily and weekly challenges and updates and its non-committal drop-in/drop-out multiplayer is a very casual game. You can jump in, do stuff for half an hour, and drop out again. The way it is structured ensures you keep coming back to do the next daily challenge to grab your next reward. Maybe every Sunday night you do the Weekly Strike with a certain group of friends. Every Saturday a vendor with rare wares appears in the hub and triggers conversations and community on social media: “Where is Xür this week?”. Every Tuesday the rewards for the raids and the weekly strikes reset, luring you in to redo them as soon as possible to grab more rewards.
It’s the paradox of casual game design that Zoya Street notes in his book Delay: more flexible in the way that you can play for short periods at a time without having to commit an entire evening, but less flexible in that the game will make you wait: a daily challenge only gives up its rewards once a day, the shop won’t reset for another twelve hours. While the MMORPG seems like the natural (or at least popular) genre to compare the game to, it is Destiny‘s overlaps with casual and social game design that I find more interesting. And, once I learned to appreciate that, the game become so much more satisfying. I got into a rhythm, dropping whatever other game I was playing for a time to quickly do the daily challenge. If I had missed the daily challenge yesterday, I’d be sure to jump on and do it before it reset at 2pm the next day. Instead of forcing Destiny into the rhythms I wanted it, I allowed myself to fall into the rhythms Destiny supplied (but obtusely fails to really communicate to the player), and it was good.
In his book on casual games, The Casual Revolution, Jesper Juul notes that a hardcore game is too inflexible to be played in a casual manner, but a casual game is flexible enough to be played in a hardcore manner. So it is with Destiny. Even with the daily and weekly constraints, there is always some task or another to complete: this gun needs upgrading, that bounty needs completing. The game feels like work, to be sure, but the kind of work you set yourself when you write up your own weekend to-do list around the house. Self-directed work. And then there are the raids, which are utterly unlike the rest of the game. I have only completed the Vault of Glass once but it was a memorable experience. Marching down from the surface of Venus with five companions, feeling like we had left the beaten track and were off on our own adventure, fighting enemies the likes of which we’d never seen in places the likes of which we’d never seen. If the rest of Destiny is casual and flexible, the raids are polar opposite, demanding hours of your time uninterrupted.
I said in my Notes on Destiny that we would not be talking about the game in six months time. It seemed like the logical conclusion after having just completed the story and thinking, as the game had given me no reason not to think, that that was the bulk of the game completed. But I could not have been more wrong. The brilliance of Destiny is that it was made to be still talked about in six months. I generally dislike the games-as-service model that requires a constant internet connection and which means the game is all but unplayable once the publisher decides it is no longer financially feasible. But what it allows Bungie and Activision to do is ensure that Destiny is constantly in the headlines: this new raid or that new patch or even just where Xür is standing this weekend. I would bet money that Destiny has had more articles written about it on gaming websites this year than any other game, and it will continue to have headlines in the new year with each new patch and each new challenge. For as long as Activision want it to be in the headlines, so it will be.
So Destiny has been fascinating to play and to understand. What on the surface is so simple and ultimately uninteresting hides a core of intricacy and artistry that requires such distinct forms of attention. It’s an obtuse game that won’t come to you, but that has a lot to offer if you can withstand Peter Dinklage’s voice acting and come to it.
Donkey Kong ’94 – Nintendo (GameBoy)
Last year some time, in a rural Victorian op-shop, I found a bag with two GameBoy Colors, a collection of mostly forgettable GameBoy and GameBoy Color cartridges, as well as some manuals that did not match the games. The bag’s price tag said “$5 for the lot”. Once I got it home, most of the games worked, but the batteries that kept the game save data saved while the GameBoy is turned off were mostly dead. Still, even playing Pokemon Gold without being able to save the game had me fixated on the visual style of this platform. I played a lot of GameBoy games as a kid, but I had never really appreciated just how much it did with a such a small display and so few colours. I really wanted to use these devices more, so I asked Twitter for advice on what games I should hunt down and try out. Donkey Kong ’94 (actually just named Donkey Kong but that is confusing) was the one game that many suggested and which was also affordable on ebay.
It’s a very interesting game for a range of reasons both artistic and technical. As I didn’t grow up playing games in the Mario franchise it’s hard to say this definitively, but Donkey Kong ’94 feels like perhaps the precursor to the modern, self-aware and self-referring style of game design that defines the later Mario games (at least for me). Donkey Kong ’94 pre-dated Mario 64 by two years and introduces many of Mario’s acrobatic skills that make Mario 64 so memorable, such as the backflip and the triple-jump. In Donkey Kong ’94 you also see the approach to game design seen in the later Mario games where each new world introduces new ideas and tosses them aside just as quickly. Instead of repetition and learning, games such as Mario Galaxy instead focus on an endless toybox of ideas tossed in and tossed aside. Donkey Kong ’94 feels like it is an early attempt to play with those ideas. And it is self-referential in the way it is not just a new Donkey Kong game, but a Donkey Kong game that deliberately nods to and interacts with the original arcade game. Nintendo are now so ubiquitous with videogame culture that it is impossible for many of their franchises, especially Mario, to not be self-referential, harking back to previous games with characters and songs and levels and the such, but in 1994 perhaps that was still novel.
Donkey Kong ’94 begins with Mario running and jumping through the original Donkey Kong stages, trying to save the princess. These levels are quickly defeated with Mario’s expanded skillset, and the game opens up dramatically. A world map is introduced; stages now scroll rather than fit to a single screen; a range of new items and enemies mingle with existing ones. It’s a bit like Candy Box, or that moment in Final Fantasy VII where I realised that the escape from Midgar was not the end of the game but instead the introduction of the World Map. The game just explodes with new depth in a really exciting way. And, surprising for a game of its age, is aided by checkpointing system that is definitely not terrible.
Technically, the game is also interesting as it is the first ‘Super GameBoy’ game. That is, the first GameBoy game made with extra colour palettes saved on the cartridge to be displayed when played through the Super GameBoy adapter on a Super Nintendo console. I only know this and only think it is exciting because of Christine Love’s superb analysis of a range of Super GameBoy games, Donkey Kong ’94 inclusive. I can’t recommend enough that article and that series to understand how this piece of technology works and how that influenced the game’s look and design.
Fantasy Life – Level-5 (3DS)
Around the time I was 18 and playing a lot of games on my GameBoy Advance, I regularly thought about how much I would love a GameBoy game that looked like Pokemon or Zelda but played like Morrowind. Essentially, just a cool, grid-like little JRPG top-down world but with less narrow progression and more open-ended, freeform goals. Multiple portable JRPGs over the years looked like they would get close to this hybrid, but always come short. Eventually, I forgot I ever even wanted such a game. Until Fantasy Life came along and I realised that this was almost precisely the game I’d been wanting.
The Elder Scrolls game all have an interesting, open-ended job system that allows you to go off and do what you want to do in that world, becoming a fighter or a magician or a carpenter or an alchemist or whatever else. But what Morrowind does exceptionally better than Oblivion or even Skyrim is supply a fictional context where this kind of slow, in-it-for-yourself gameplay actually makes sense. Skyrim’s narrative is pushed forward by an unfurling war and the return of dragons, Oblivion’s by the even more urgent sudden opening of hellish gateways and a demon invasion that needs to be dealt with right now. Morrowind’s narrative, on the other hand, is about how you kind of maybe seem to fulfil this prophecy about being the messiah born again so maybe you should go check that out I guess. It’s a narrative that actually fits around the slow-moving gameplay, rather than competes with it, and makes it much easier to just live your life picking flowers or going on a pilgrimage in-game.
Fantasy Life is similar in that the choosing of your jobs and what you do with those jobs and your life comes first, and the clichè and forgettable jrpg narrative comes second. Story missions are simple and spread out (and incredibly tedious), encouraging you to spend more time just getting better at carpentry or mining or fishing. There’s some stuff that needs to be investigated, but nothing threatening the world right now. Just live your life.
It’s such a satisfying slow burn. I’d spend one evening chopping down some trees and mining iron and gems, then return to town to craft some new weapons as a blacksmith that I can then wield as a paladin. In your first few jobs, you spend much time dependent on the various retailers selling ingredients, but as you learn more skills you end up doing more stuff on your own. If you wish, at least. If you want to play the entire game as a fisherwoman or a carpenter, you can do that too.
It’s just really nice. It’s simple and straightforward and basic and just a very satisfying little grindy portable jrpg without a massively intricate narrative or fighting system. Just some jobs to get better at. It’s also refreshingly self-aware, constantly mocking jrpg tropes. The writing is witty, too, although there is about twice as much of it as I would like.
Flappy Bird – Dong Nguyen (iOS)
I was backpacking in Europe when Flappy Bird took off. After weeks of watching game twitter both defend and
dismiss attack Flappy Bird (I was very much on the defending side) whenever I found an internet connection in some hostel, I distinctly remember sitting in Heathrow Airport, waiting for my plane back to Australia, and across from me was a young girl, maybe about five years old, and her dad. The girl had a tablet and the dad had a phone, and they were playing Flappy Bird side by side, starting at the same time and trying to outlive the other one. What I most remember about this was that the dad was not just humouring her daughter, playing her silly little game to keep her occupied; they were both clearly enjoying this game.
I think it’s so important to stop and understand and appreciate those few videogames that break past the shackles of insular games culture to gain a broader, mainstream appeal. These games normally point towards design decisions that are at once more accessible and purer at the same time, rather than just reiterating the same niche genres and design ideologies of triple-a games-for-gamers. Minecraft does this, as does Candy Crush Saga. Flappy Bird is another one. Games culture couldn’t deal with its popularity, needing to tear down this silly little game that dupes non-gamers instead of really trying to appreciated what it did so well. It’s why I so vehemently defended it (and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood later in the year): not because these games are necessarily great, but because their dismissal is typically more about polarising and defending a normative game design culture than anything else.
But Flappy Bird is a really good mobile game. It’s brutal and unforgiving, but also welcoming and accessible. It’s tense and stressful and can make you hold your breath and forget about the world as you try so hard not to think but to just find the rhythm. The saga surrounding the game is interesting and needs to be remembered for both popular culture and games culture alike, but at the fulcrum of all that is just a really solid mobile game that deserves all the success it had.
Helix – Michael Brough (iOS)
In earnest, I’ve been playing early builds of Helix since late last year, I think, as part of Brough’s Testflight mailing list for games still in testing. I’ve seen fleeting glimpses as Brough struggled with the balance of this seemingly simple game, trying to get it just right.
Helix does seem simple compared to Brough’s more strategic and complex release last year, 868-hack, but there’s still an immediate cleverness about the design. It feels like something Brough would make. The premise is simple: a top-down game like Geometry Wars but instead of shooting enemies you fly in a circle around them. Each enemy is orbited by a dot but that always faces towards the player. Move around the enemy and the dot draws a circle as it spins around the enemy, exploding them once it is complete. Some enemies need to be wrapped up multiple times, while others demand the player goes around them in a specific direction.
The visual touches are nice, too, with Brough’s incredible sprites and backgrounds that Liz Ryerson once described as feeling “like stepping inside of a machine that has existed for a very long time before you ever entered into it.” When an enemy is destroyed, they shatter into a spray of pixels that disseminate by spiralling outwards in the same direction as you spun to destroy them in the first place. It’s this really nice little touch that is perhaps the most explicit example of how much care Brough puts into his games.
But what is most fascinating about Helix and what deserves the most attention is its mode of input. The convention for touchscreen games is a stable, 1:1 proportioning between input and output: a tap always does the same thing, swiping an object moves it from where your finger starts to where your finger ends up. Helix, on the other hand, has strangely accelerating controls. Touch the avatar and drag it to the left, and the avatar will soon rush out from under your finger, moving at a faster rate than your finger, but at a rate always relative to your finger’s speed. This is incredibly offputting and difficult to understand at first, but allows some real fine-grained and satisfying control after a bit of practice. It also allows the game to be controlled with a single thumb in the corner of the screen rather than always on top of and obscuring the avatar. It’s a fascinating control scheme and one worthy of more attention than it has received.
Luftrausers – Vlambeer (PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita)
I’m yet to play a Vlambeer game that I have not been smitten by. The way Jan Willem Nijman makes games, focusing first and foremost on this indulgent, amplified sense of input, just clicks with my love of games that just feel really good to engage with. There is also, to be sure, some bias happening here. Undoubtedly, I approach a new Vlambeer game with tinted glasses, not unlike you approach the new song of your favourite band in a similar way. I don’t think this is a bad thing, however.
Luftrausers is contained and straightforward the way most Vlambeer games are, with that one weird alteration to something well known to give it that personality. In Super Crate Box, for instance, the very straightforward idea of picking up boxes and using different weapons to shoot the enemies was altered by the fact that each box would force you to use a random weapon. Luftrausers alteration on the straightforward aerial shooter is in how it controls, where ‘left’ does not move you to the left and ‘right’ does not move you to the right, but instead each rotates your ship in a direction before ‘up’ then thrusts you that way. It’s a minor change that makes moving all the more challenging, but all the more rewarding once you figure it out. Dogfights become this aerial ballet of cartwheels and backflips and inertia-driven climbs.
I wrote some pretty extensive notes on Luftrausers for Unwinnable earlier this year, and anything more I write here would just be repeating those points so I’ll just finish this off here.
Marginalia – Connor Sherlock and Cameron Kunzelman (itch.io)
A Dear Esther-like game that has the player wander through the woods, listening to narrated segments of story as they move through the environment, slowly patching the story together. Earlier this year I played one of Sherlock’s earlier games, Sanctuary, and really enjoyed its vague and evocative environments. Kunzelman, meanwhile, is a sharp and clever writer (and a good friend; deal with it, gaters). Marginalia is straightforward and does not do a whole lot that you haven’t seen before if you’ve played Dear Esther, but that isn’t a problem; not every new game has to do something formally unique if it does what it does well.
What most struck me about Marginalia was its clever use of perspective to obscure and reveal environmental information and to guide the player. There are the lights shining through the trees that it wants you to follow, of course, but then there are far more subtle cues like a rocky overhang or a slight rise in the ground that ensure there are only ever one unvisited lot of lights visible from the one you stand. It conveys this real clever sense of being lost and disorientated in this vast forest when, really, if you looked at the map, I suspect it’s not actually that large at all.
Marginalia made me want to make a game. Or at least, an environment to walk through. It made me want to build a forest of my own to get lost in. I’m not sure why I had this response to it. Maybe it’s the low-poly look of the forest that doesn’t at all detract from the atmosphere it conveys. Maybe that makes building something like this feel ‘doable’. I don’t know. Anyway. Play Marginalia if you are into walking-sim games.
Mario Kart 8 – Nintendo (WiiU)
Screenshots of Mario Kart 8 convinced me to buy a WiiU, the first Nintendo console I’ve purchased since the Super Nintendo. Not because I have a deep, nostalgic love for either Nintendo or Mario Kart (I do like Mario Kart, though), but simply because it looked so beautiful. It’s just, simply, a visually stunning game that I wanted to play so that I could look at it. So I did.
I can’t recall the last game I played that was this visually satisfying. I wrote for Paste earlier this year about how much I just want to visit the incredibly detailed worlds that each course is situated in. The number of minuscule visual details are staggering, and many of them are only even noticeable in slow-motion highlight reels. Things like the sheen of wetness on each character after they splash out of the water; or, on the revamped SNES Rainbow Road track that came with the recent DLC, the way the flashing rainbow lights of the track are reflected off Lakitu’s cloud. The whole game is just this perfectly balanced hybrid of Mario cartoony-ness and ‘realistic’ effects and details that manages to never enter the uncanny.
Beyond the visual, the game is also just a solid Mario Kart entry with a range of interesting tracks and a gimmick (the anti-grav thing) that is at its best spectacular and at its worst ignorable, but never obtuse or annoying. It’s been incredibly satisfying to spend the year playing Mario Kart 8 with my partner as she has learned how to drift and how to strategically use different items (for instance, dragging a banana behind you if you are coming first to defend against red shell attacks). Mario Kart 8 looks and feels good enough that it makes it satisfying enough to play even if you are not good at it yet, and thus helps convince people to hang around until they are good at it. Very few games have that ability.
There are some oversights though, to be sure. The lack of battle arenas feels like a severe omission; playing battles on race tracks is hardly an equal substitute. The inability to pick up another item once you are dragging an item is an annoyance, but one that I’ve come to enjoy as a restraint rather than dislike as a limitation. But despite these, Mario Kart 8 is a truly incredible game, and one I will still be playing for years to come when friends come to visit. The WiiU has a lot of games worth playing, but Mario Kart 8 is the one that actually justifies purchasing a WiiU.
Netrunner – Fantasy Flight Games (card game)
I’m not that into board or card games, or non-digital games generally. I typically find myself quite antagonistic to the notion (especially within academic game studies) that videogames are a direct descendant to non-digital games. There are overlaps, to be sure, and an appreciation of non-digital play is crucial to an appreciation of digital play, but such a notion often limits conceptualisations of videogames to nothing but a digitalised subset of non-digital games, privileging what is most visible in those games (rules, goals, competition) and obscuring what videogames do that non-digital games do not (audiovisual design, cinematic design, etc.). This makes my uptake of Netrunner this year an anomaly.
It was Leigh Alexander’s essay that convinced me to finally take the plunge after seeing various friends get into the game on Twitter. The fact it is thematically cyberpunk and computery certainly helped to make it more accessible (or at least more attractive) to my videogame sensibilities.
At first I found the game incredibly difficult. The manual offers very little guidance to new players (but, I later discovered, is a very useful guide once you have played a few games); there are a lot of rules that need to be understood upfront before you can start playing; there is a vast vocabulary of nouns and verbs with very specific meanings and situations, and different cards only make sense if you know the specific differences between, say, ‘exposing’ a card and ‘accessing’ a card.
But after that steep climb to understand the basic rules, everything else falls into place. Each new card in each new data pack makes immediate sense once those basic rules are comprehended, but it’s not until you see that card played alongside and against other cards that you truly appreciate what it is capable of. As I wrote for Reverse Shot, that is the most satisfying thing about Netrunner: watching different combinations of cards interlock and create different systems; win or lose, something interesting will happen.
Netrunner, along with Mario Kart 8, has also made me a more social player this year. Whereas most of the games I consume are in the lounge room, alone, Mario Kart 8 saw multiple friends come to my home on multiple occasions to play together, and Netrunner has, for the better part of the last year, had me heading to a pub once a week, like clockwork, to play games with a close group of friends. What started as just the two of us has swollen to at times more than a dozen people, playing Netrunner and other games in a North Carlton pub. I don’t think I’m a non-digital play convert, or that I’ll be branching out into card or board games beyond Netrunner, but it’s been invaluable to have myself tested this way and to encounter modes of play that I would otherwise typically ignore.
Nuclear Throne – Vlambeer (Steam)
I said above in my Luftrausers entry that Vlambeer games are typically simple and straightforward; Nuclear Throne is the exception. Whereas games like Luftrausers and Super Crate Box are a simple loop iterated and polished, Nuclear Throne is, and continues to be, a massive pile of content and stuff. It’s surely the biggest game Vlambeer have worked on, and fated to be their most successful once it is complete and sees a console release.
Nuclear Throne is essentially a top-down shooter roguelike—much like The Binding of Isaac but actually interesting to play. The Binding of Isaac isn’t a terrible game, but it’s just so unsatisfying to play. Shooting these slow, bloated tears that just kind of splash onto the floor is no match for the fast, screenshaking crispiness of Nuclear Throne’s projectiles. Before any consideration of mechanical depth or fidelity, I just find Nuclear Throne so much more satisfying to engage with in the way I typically find Vlambeer’s games.
The game has a great rhythm. You need to be careful, to be sure, but you never want to stop. You want to rush in and shoot and chop and explode and dodge and change weapons and jump out again. The music helps with this, to be sure, as does the low HP of most enemies. There are very few bulletsponges to be found here. Nuclear Throne also echoes Borderlands, in a way, through its focus on weapons. Whereas a game like Spelunky is more about what contraptions and gadgets you find, how you play Nuclear Throne is all down to what two weapons you decide to carry. A grenade launcher and a sledgehammer, for instance, will play very differently than a crossbow and an assault rifle. On top of this are the mutations you choose to upgrade and the character’s abilities, all combining in endless variations. It perhaps doesn’t offer quite the same level of discovery and revelation as Spelunky, but it’s another commendable modification of the roguelike genre blended with another.
What else is fascinating about Nuclear Throne, though, has been its development cycle. It must be one of, if not the, most successful games on Steam Early Access. Not due to luck or the developer’s reputation, but from a vast amount of effort and transparency from Vlambeer’s behalf. The game is updated weekly with large amounts of new content and tweaks. The game’s development is livestreamed weekly, and regularly talked about on social media by both Nijman and Ismail. It’s built up a massive community of players and youtubers playing the game, streaming the game, and creating fanart around the game. The way Vlambeer have cultivated a community around their game before it is even complete has been really interesting to watch, and will be interesting to keep watching as the game nears completion.
Push Me Pull You – House House (Unreleased)
Okay, sorry, I am doing that pretentious thing where one of the games on my list is a local multiplayer game that the general public does not have access to yet. It’s like Nidhogg all over again! Push Me Pull You is a 2-vs-2 game by four guys in Melbourne. I first heard of it early this year, and first played it at the Wild Rumpus party in March in San Francisco (yes, I had to go halfway around the world to play a game made by people who use the same tram line as myself). Not long afterwards, I met the developers (Nico, Michael, Jake, Stuart) when they came to RMIT to give a guest lecture for the Critical Game Studies subject I was teaching, where they gave a priceless look at their own iterations on the game and their influences. Throughout 2014, I’ve had the privilege of watching the game played by ‘games people’ and the general public alike at various events and in my own loungeroom, and I’ve spoken at length (and at various stages of drunkenness) with its developers.
Push Me Pull You’s conceit is simple: two teams compete to keep a ball on their half of the court. The two players of a single team control the two ends of a single creature, like Catdog or Noby Noby Boy, and they can stretch or shrink that body. The ball can be nudged along or wrapped up in flesh. Things get tricky when the second team gets involved and all sorts of tactics emerge: a shorter body has more strength and pushing force, but a larger body covers more room. A common tactic is for one team to wrap up the ball, each player moving in opposite directions to keep the spiral tight, while the other team shrinks down, crawls in through the flabs of flesh, then blurts outwards to wrap up the ball in their own flesh.
It sounds kind of gross! And it kind of is. But it is also offputtingly cute. I’ve seen the game run at public events where passers-by stop and are eager to have a go in ways they often aren’t with more pixel-y, ‘game-y’ videogames. Push Me Pull You looks more cartoony and welcoming, like a Keita Takahashi game, and that carries the game a long way. It’s incredibly easy to have a good time with it even without any comprehension of tactics or strategy, which is so important for a local multiplayer game.
Push Me Pull You isn’t complete yet, and the developers are regularly adding more polish and even playing with some new modes that I’m very excited about. But I’ve had a blast playing it and getting to know its developers and watching it grow throughout 2014, and I’m excited to continue watching it and playing it in 2015.
P.T – Konami (PlayStation 4)
P.T is a “playable teaser” for the next Silent Hill game—a game that cannot hope to be as interesting or as powerful as P.T. In my notes on the game that I wrote earlier this year, I mentioned how P.T feels like what happens when the resources available to a large studio aren’t restrained by normative ideas of what a triple-a game ‘must’ be. It’s a single idea superbly executed, and I love it for that.
I enjoy games that play with repetition, with the Groundhog Day ontology of videogame play. All of P.T takes place in two corridors joined by a corner and a couple of offshooting rooms. The door at the end of the corridor wraps around back to the beginning of the corridor, looping you around and around in some kind of limbo. Each time, something changes. A door might be open or something might have moved or a sound might be different. Occasionally, there are jump scares, but somehow the game manages to pre-empt when you expect a jump scare to happen and places the jump scares somewhere else. It is, to be sure, one of the most terrifying videogames I have ever played.
P.T has so much breathing space. Not only is it allowed to be small and contained, but it is allowed to be obtuse in ways triple-a games are rarely allowed to be obtuse. I never ‘finished’ the game—that is, I never got to the final moment where it explicitly tells me that a new Silent Hill game is Coming Soon. But I got to the stage just before this with some help from the internet. But seeing as how the entire game is about being stuck in limbo in this corridor, actually progressing feels insignificant. It felt more right to just be trapped in this corridor, ensuring some things changed and some things stayed the same, and eventually only escaping by ceding to the game and giving up once my poor, wrecked body couldn’t take the anxiety any more.
Silent Hills can’t function that way. It won’t be allowed to be so contained, constrained, or experimental. It won’t be allowed to jerk around the player like this. It won’t be allowed to be so short you only need to play it for half an hour. It will need a certain amount of content and features that will justify a $60 price tag. That in itself will greatly hinder what Silent Hills can be, just as it hinders all triple-a games. That’s not to say that it will inevitably be bad, but it will be unable to replicate what P.T has accomplished. But that’s okay! I would love to see more playable teasers like P.T that don’t just offer a tasting plate of the full game’s opening levels but instead give an autonomous experience doing its own thing that instead shows us what the developers are going for in tone, not in feature lists.
Swing Copter – Dong Nguyen (iOS)
Nguyen’s follow up to Flappy Bird is just as polarising, just as ingenious, and significantly less accessible. Flappy Bird’s popularity came largely from the fact that you could not even start a game without figuring out the controls. That first tap that starts the game bounces the bird up into the air, immediately showing you what a tap will do. Swing Copter, on the other hand, is not so clear. The first tap simply starts the motors so that the character lifts into the air, tilts to the right, and dies against the edge of the screen. Surviving long enough to even figure out what subsequent taps do is a task in and of itself.
Which in some ways makes Swing Copter the perfect sequel. It’s a game for the people that have already mastered Flappy Bird and need a new, more difficult challenge. It was also, inaccessible in a way that I still believe must have been a deliberate response of Nguyen’s to his fear that Flappy Bird was too addictive. It is very easy to put Swing Copter down.
The day I published my Notes on Swing Copter was also one of the last days I played it. The next day, Nguyen released an update in response to the numerous people complaining it was too hard. At this stage, most people were still struggling to reach a score of 3. I had a score in the fifties, I believe, and I knew others with scores in the seventies or higher. It’s hard to make this criticism without sounding elitist, but Swing Copter truly lost something special when it was made easier. Before the update, each and every point felt like an accomplishment. Getting to 10, even if your highscore was 58, was still an achievement. It always felt so tense, always on the brink of utter ruin. But after the update, it became a walk in the park—just tap along with the rhythm. It went from a measure of skill to a measure of endurance. Perhaps if I had never played the pre-update version I would not have found the updated version so offensive, but after putting in days of time and effort to learn the game, the update felt like a massive misstep.
So my love of Swing Copter was short and concentrated. It was never going to have the buzz or longevity of Flappy Bird, and the neutered update made doubly sure of this. But for those short days, I was obsessed, and I savoured that sense of utter, fixated concentration with every tap that I had not felt since playing Flappy Bird.
Threes! – Asher Vollmer, Greg Wohlwend, Jimmy Hinson (iOS)
Threes!, along with Flappy Bird, was the other game I spent most of my month around Europe playing. The conceit is simple enough, moving blocks around a grid and mashing them together to create new blocks—simple enough that it was quickly cloned by the likes of 1024 and 2048. But Threes! was so much more than its mechanics. It was so satisfying to play, to see what the next monster would look and sound like, to just feel the blocks mashing into each other like two marshmellows mushed together. It’s an incredibly satisfying, single-handed game to just swipe around for a while.
Some tactics learned over time or with the help of others kept the game fresh, such as when you realise the next block will always appear on the side opposite of which you slid towards on your last move. There is a wall where it feels like only luck will keep you going, but that luck is always influenced by how well you have setup for it as well.
There’s not a whole lot else to say about Threes!. It’s just a really good game presented excellently.
Wolfenstein: The New Order – Machinegames (PlayStation 3)
The opening stage of The New Order is, in itself, unremarkable. It sets the game up as just another game where you shoot nazis and robots in fifty shades of grey. It took a long time for me to warm to the game, to appreciate that something quite interesting was happening here beyond just being an old-school shooter. At some point as I was starting to warm to the game, I tweeted about how it felt like a Starbreeze game, the studio responsible for The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and The Darkness. A few people then informed me that Machinegames was, in fact, founded by a bunch of former Starbreeze members. Suddenly, everything made sense.
It’s hard to put into words just what I mean by The New Order feeling like Starbreeze. Starbreeze’s games are strange. They are mixbags of genre tropes and novel ideas and interesting characters. The Darkness, for instance, will have you walking down streets gunning mafia members and policemen and eating their hearts with weird tentacle demons… and then give you the option to sit on the couch at your girlfriend’s apartment and watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird. Escape From Butcher Bay, meanwhile, rarely gives you access to more than a few guns, regularly steals them away again, and stretches out long periods of story where not a whole lot happens. Above I said Alien: Isolation feels like one of those games that starts with a theme, not a genre. The New Order, like Starbreeze’s games beforehand, feels like it does start with a genre, but then smashes apart that genre and sticks the pieces back together into a Frankensteinian monster.
So while The New Order begins as what seems like Just Another Shooter, it gradually comes clear that it is, in fact, just a very weird game. A lot of people have said it is better than it has any right to be, but I think it is just exactly as good as it is. The New Order is very content with itself; it just is what it is. You’ll hold two machine guns to shoot up robot nazis in corridors for a while, and then alternative universe Jimi Hendrix will give you some acid and play a guitar solo for you. One level will be near jovial, while the next will have the ‘good guys’ use a suicide bomber and the nazis use rhetoric that echoes that used by America in the War on Terror. You go to the moon and when your commander asks you what your status is, your character says, “Well. I’m on the fucking moon!” with barely restrained excitement. The New Order is a hot mess, and it loves itself.
The New Order should also be commended for including one of the few not-gross heterosexual relationships in a triple-a game. Not far into the game, B.J and a nurse named Anya—who up to that point has been set up as a classic damsel—fuck. My initial reaction to this was a cringe and a snarky tweet. I assumed (justifiably) that this was just a typical attempt of a male-dominated studio trying to titillate a presumed male and young audience. Sex and boobs for the sake of sex and boobs. But! The sexual relationship between B.J and Anya manages to avoid the ‘vending machine’ approach to sex that Kim Moss rightly pointed out at Nightmare Mode is gross and typical of games: do the right things, tick the right boxes, and you will win sex from this woman. It encourages a representation of sexual relationships that is straight out of some gross pickup artist’s playbook. Sex in The New Order is not the end of the relationship but the start; B.J and Anya hook up in a terrible situation and this flowers into an actual loving relationship over the course of the game. Sex isn’t a trophy here. Later in the game, Anya gives B.J a variety of orders, then says “just one more thing”, makes out with him, and sends him on his way. It’s just really nice for two characters in a game to be in a relationship during the game, not just end up in a relationship at the end of the game. That first sex scene, in it self, is super awkward and cringeworthy because of its context in a triple-a game, but as the relationship flowers between the two characters into something quite mundane, you realise it is actually quite nice and your hostility towards it comes mostly from feeling betrayed by other games. Anya, importantly, is a strong and independent person. When B.J is sent to rescue her again later in the game, he encounters her in a corridor, having already escaped from her cell.
The New Order is a solid generic game not overly fussed with sticking within the conventions of the genre it has chosen for itself. It’s carried, in large part, on the strength of its characters and its commitment to its world that is serious but not unable to make fun of itself. Considering the baggage and reputation the game is carrying, inevitably looking on the surface like Just Another Cash In on an ancient franchise, The New Order surpassed all my expectations.