2014 was the year of the failed AAA launch. Many games from major publishers turned out to be abysmally awful, completely unplayable, or totally overhyped on release – DriveClub, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and Destiny, to name a few. However, there were a number of gems too, and I’m going to list 10 of them. Included among them are a couple of AAA titles, a smattering of indie games, and at least one weird experiment in interactive fiction.

I’m also going to list the 5 worst games of the year, because it’s fun to mock terrible games.

THE 10 BEST GAMES OF THE YEAR
10. Glitchhikers

Glitchhikers

I don’t drive very often – I don’t own a car – and even when I do, I’m usually accompanied by passengers. But on the rare occasions when I drive alone, it’s easy for me to get lost in my thoughts. The deepest recesses of my brain become my passengers, giving me company on my journey. Glitchhikers reifies those aspects of my mind, rendering them as people (or alien-robot things!) in my passenger seat. I have brief philosophical discussions with them, and then, poof! They’re gone as quickly as they came. The game’s red-and-purple colour palette and blocky geometry, a strange hybrid of Fract OSC and Kentucky Route Zero, is just abstract enough to make the conceit work.

Did I mention that the game is free? You can download it here.

9. Goat Simulator

Goat Simulator

BAA!

Sometimes great things can result from stupid ideas. Goat Simulator is basically one huge joke on the games industry, poking fun at everything from YouTube fodder to Minecraft. It’s intentionally riddled with bugs, to the point that you get a Steam achievement for crashing the game. But the humour of a single joke can only carry a game so far. Luckily, Goat Simulator is actually a pretty robust Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater clone, complete with flips, rotations, and “manuals.” Developer Coffee Stain Studios has been continually adding new content, giving players a second map as well as an MMO-aping add-on, where you can play as a microwave with feet for some reason. Goat Simulator is goofy, irreverent, and audaciously stupid, and that’s why I love it.

8. A Story About My Uncle

A Story About My Uncle

Number 8 on the list is also from Coffee Stain Studios, though it was developed by Gone North Games. Remember when your parents used to read bedtime stories to you, and your imagination would become lost in the worlds their words spun? A Story About My Uncle aims to recreate that sense of childlike wonder by – what else? – narrating the events of the game in the form of a bedtime story. With a vibrant colour palette and a grappling mechanic that sent me soaring through the skies, every section of Uncle felt like the next chapter in an epic, Peter Pan-esque tale. Sure, it could be keyboard-smashingly difficult at times, but nothing could beat the joyous feeling I got when I successfully completed a tough section. I hadn’t felt that kind of rush since playing Mirror’s Edge; it made me feel like a cross between Faith and Spider-Man, hurtling through the air towards the next stop on my grand adventure.

7. Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition

The Dragon Age series has always been about big ideas. Dragon Age: Origins was an interesting – if somewhat shallow – look at heroism and sacrifice. Dragon Age II was a treatise on the inevitability of tragedy. Dragon Age: Inquisition broadens the series’ scope to examine societies and how they function. Specifically, it is concerned with organizations, institutions, and movements, and how they influence the course of history. I was initially skeptical that I would ever truly feel in control the game’s titular inquisition, but then I realized that was the point: leaders never truly feel in control of organizations; movements take on a life of their own, and leaders can at best provide gentle nudges in the right direction. One by one, I was forced to consider the institutional failures of the Templars, the Circles of Magi, the Seekers of Truth, the Grey Wardens, the Qun, the Andrastian Chantry, and even the Grand Game of Orlais, and then render judgment on them. Although my judgments would shape the course of those groups, I was powerless to actually manipulate them to do my bidding.

Clearly, Inquisition has a massive scope, and fittingly, it’s set in a massive world, with multiple open zones to explore, each rendered in gorgeous detail. In contrast to the dull greys and browns of previous games in the series, Inquisition is full of bright, vibrant colour. Navigating through each zone is a continual process of discovery, a constant uncovering of beautiful new locations and little nuggets of lore.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the fantasy RPG at its best – massive in scope, but with a beating, human (or elven or dwarven or qunari) heart at its core. The only reason it isn’t higher up on the list is because it’s buggy as shit, especially during combat. A recent patch fixed some issues, but many still remain.

6. Consortium

Consortium

It’s The Stanley Parable meets Mass Effect, but you’re trapped aboard the Normandy, and you’re not really Commander Shepard but just a guy whose consciousness has been projected into the future and into his body, and… You know what? You kind of have to play the game to get it.

I have to admire developer Interdimensional Games for just going there; Consortium is such a bizarre game that I don’t think it could ever have existed without crowdfunding. But Consortium isn’t just weird; it’s actually really good! It’s jam-packed full of lore, painting a portrait of a world that has managed to solve many of society’s problems but is still beset by geopolitical strife. I spent hours reading the in-game codex, poring over its details like it were a visual novel. Moreover, it feels like the choices I made in the game had legitimate consequences. Not since Alpha Protocol has a game been so reactive to the player’s decisions. I started a third playthrough just to see how the outcomes would change. In fact, I continued playing the game even as it overheated my old graphics card, which forced me to replace my GPU.

Consortium is the first game of a planned trilogy, and it ended on a cliffhanger. I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.

5. Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein: The New Order

The new Wolfenstein game wasn’t supposed to be good. It was supposed to be a lazy cash-in on the Wolfenstein brand, developed for the sole purpose of satisfying Zenimax shareholders. Instead, The New Order is one of the best first-person shooters since Half-Life 2.

The New Order is one of the few shooters to successfully reconcile the past of the shooter genre with the advancements it has made over the past decade. The game has medpaks and armour, but it also has upgrades and limited regenerating health. It has huge open levels with multiple paths, but it also has maps with objective markers so that you don’t get lost. It encourages you to run and gun, but it lets you hide behind walls and lean out of cover when the going gets tough.

Even the game’s plot, which draws on the series’ past to use its admittedly goofy premise of hi-tech mecha-Nazis, also draws on the themes of more recent shooters to tell a surprisingly mature story of oppression, loss, despair, and sacrifice. The New Order finds the human core in a world of ultraviolence and seeks to understand the damage inflicted upon it.

4. The Wolf Among Us, Episodes 2 to 5

The Wolf Among Us

Telltale Games has a knack for bringing comic-book aesthetics to life. In The Wolf Among Us, they portray the urban decay of ’80s with retro, neon-drenched stylings, creating a feeling of gloom and sleaze. But the feeling isn’t just for show; like Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Wolf Among Us is a game about institutional failure. Wolf shows us how institutions can constrain the well-intentioned when they try to help the disadvantaged. Bigby Wolf wants to improve the lives of the people whom he serves, but the office of Sheriff requires that he remain impartial, and even dispassionate at times. The people are justifiably angry, but they misdirect their ire at Bigby instead of the system that he belongs to, thereby creating a never-ending cycle of resentment. It’s no surprise that the residents of Fabletown create their own makeshift institutions to fill the gaps in their lives.

It’s often said that The Wolf Among Us contains no real detective work, and that’s certainly true. It will always end with Bigby catching the person responsible for the murder that initiated the plot. But that sort of misses the point. The real mystery isn’t who killed Faith; it’s how to resolve the institutional failures that led to Faith’s death.

(My playthrough of these episodes is available for viewing here.)

3. Twitch Plays Pokémon

Twitch Plays Pokémon

Genius psychological experiment? Pointless trifle? Or the world’s largest multiplayer game? Whatever the case, Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) was a social phenomenon. The premise was simple: instead of being controlled via button inputs, a game of Pokémon Red was hacked to respond to commands typed via Twitch chat. Before long, the Twitch channel went viral, and thousands of people starting “playing” the game at once. TPP ended up spawning memes, fanart, and even its own loopy mythology. (All hail Bird Jesus!)

My Facebook feed is usually an endless series of Instagrammed restaurant meals and excited engagement announcements. (Stupid happy couples.) But for the few weeks when TPP was in its first cycle, my feed turned into a joyous collective of nerds cheering on the exploits of a anarchic, chaotic mob of total strangers. I have no doubt that TPP will eventually prompt academic analyses from the fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, but for now, it stands as a testament to the ability of video games to bring us closer together in the digital age.

2. Fract OSC

Fract OSC

Full disclosure: the game’s primary developer, Ben Flanagan of Phosfiend Systems, actually tweeted my review of the game:

Richard Flanagan tweeted my review.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about Fract. What I liked most about this first-person puzzler was that it set me as an archaeologist in a mysterious world. Many games cast the player in the role of explorer, but Fract is one of the few that made me feel like I was genuinely uncovering the secrets of a world by interpreting messages left behind by a long-lost civilization. Its neon-soaked world of slithering synthesizers and alien artifacts kept me enthralled for hours.

(My playthrough of the game is available for viewing here.)

1. Broken Age, Act 1

Broken Age

This was the project that pushed Kickstarter into the mainstream gaming consciousness. This was the game that was going to revive the long-dead point-and-click adventure genre. This was the work whose success or failure would determine the viability of crowdfunding as a source of money in the gaming industry.

Broken Age succeeded.

Not only that, it succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. Broken Age is gorgeous, witty, and heartfelt. I can feel the developers’ love oozing out of every pixel. It’s got clever puzzles, an emotionally engaging story, and top-notch voice acting. It’s also one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played; its painterly style makes it seem like an artwork come to life. What more could I have asked for? Act 2 is set to release early next year, and I couldn’t be more excited.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

  • The Walking Dead: Season Two, Episodes 2 to 5. Clementine’s characterization continued to be excellent, and watching her have to grow up in a shitty, zombie-infested world broke my heart. Unfortunately, her companions didn’t receive anywhere near the same detail of characterization, and furthermore, some of them were just plain annoying. (My playthrough of these episodes is available for viewing here.)
  • Kentucky Route Zero, Act III. Kentucky Route Zero continues to be one of the most unique gaming experiences out there, taking risks that no major studio would ever dare to consider. But as it grows ever more abstract and broadens in scope, it’s starting to lose focus of what really matters: the story of Shannon and Conway. Moreover, the developers’ utter inability to commit to any sort of release schedule is frustrating. (You can read my thoughts on Act III here.)
  • Here and There Along the Echo. Set up like a telephone hotline, this Kentucky Route Zero spin-off project was kind of cool, but it also felt a little too disconnected from the main series. (You can download the game for free here.)
  • Jazzpunk. This game was a total farce from beginning to end, which means that the enjoyment I got out of it was directly related to whether or not its jokes landed. Some of them did, and some them didn’t.
  • BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, Episode 2. Though this DLC episode rectified almost all of my problems with the first one, I think it might have been a bit too clever for its own good. That being said, I still thought it was a suitable capper on the saga of BioShock Infinite. (You can read my review of Episode 2 here.)
  • 2048. I played a lot of this clever puzzle game in 2014. Unfortunately, it’s basically a rip-off of Threes, which I haven’t played.
  • The Sensational December Machine. It’s a cute, little piece of interactive fiction from Simogo, the guys who made Year Walk and Device 6. It’s a little on the short side, though. (You can download it for free here.)

THE 5 WORST GAMES OF THE YEAR
Alright, enough heartfelt sentimentality. It’s time to take out the trash.

5. Watch Dogs

Too much information!

I think the conversation surrounding Watch Dogs would have been very different had it been released a few months later in the wake of Eric Garner’s and Mike Brown’s deaths at the hands of police officers. Then, rather than being seen as yet another overhyped AAA disappointment with a rocky launch, it might have been seen as a problematic creative work with some frighteningly racist undertones. When almost all of the black men in your version of Chicago are gang members who speak in laughably exaggerated AAVE, and players are rewarded for killing them, then you’ve fucked up, plain and simple.

But even if Watch Dogs had treated black people as more than just stereotypes, it still wouldn’t be a good game. Featuring repetitive missions, risible writing, shoddy driving mechanics, and yes – a shitload of bugs, Watch Dogs was just a disappointment all around.

(You can read my review of the game here.)

4. Murdered: Soul Suspect

Murdered: Soul Suspect

Murdered: Soul Suspect has a really cool premise – you play as a ghost trying to solve your own murder! – and an interesting story with a genuinely shocking twist. How did Airtight Games manage to fuck this one up so badly?

Even if Murdered had had the most exciting story ever (it doesn’t), it would have still been a bad game, because its gameplay is simply abysmal. Its “puzzles” consist of ridiculous 3D pixel hunts, as well as the occasional word association sequence, because apparently Airtight thinks we’re in the third grade. Its combat consists of sneaking up behind demons and performing QTEs, because of course it does.

Murdered doesn’t even have the decency of looking good. Its art design is uninspired, and despite not being very technically advanced, it’s poorly optimized, running like shit even on modern PCs. Its frame rate chugs at times for no apparent reason, and it’s basically unplayable without a controller. Overall, just a shitty, stupid game with few redeeming qualities, other than being able to possess cats.

(My playthrough of the game is available for viewing here.)

3. Giopi: 2014 Mission Majority

Giopi: 2014 Mission Majority

Let’s get this out of the way: to put it lightly, I don’t like the Republican Party. But even if this game had been put out by the Democrats, or hell, a fucking hippie commune, it would still be a terrible, terrible piece of advergaming. For starters, it’s got campaigning all backwards. You don’t force people to sign up with their personal information in order to play the game; you use the game to entice them into giving you their personal information. Besides, you can sign up by providing a fake e-mail address, such as iloverepublicans@republicans4ever.net. (Don’t steal that one; it’s mine.)

And that’s not even talking about the game itself, a lazy Super Mario clone with inconsistent enemy hitbox detection. It’s just a boring, sloppily made game. It can’t even entertain with its awfulness. If the Republican Party wants to get into the propaganda-via-gaming arena (which would be hilarious, considering the stances of many of their members towards gaming), then they should really take their cues from something that actually works, like America’s Army.

(My playthrough of the game is available for viewing here.)

2. Thief

Thief

Look at that map. Look at that fucking map. Someone at Eidos Montréal actually thought that was reasonable, useful thing to put in a video game. It is neither reasonable nor useful. It is digital garbage.

Thief has almost no redeeming qualities. It has restricted movement and stealth mechanics. A bland art style and soundtrack. A nonsensical plot. Stupid dialogue. Tonally inconsistent voice acting. The worst fucking sound design and mixing in any AAA game I’ve ever played. Seriously, it’s fucking embarrassing.

Thief is a toxic, oppressive sludge of mediocrity and monotony. It rarely attains anything approaching entertainment. At best, it’s a skinner box that rewards greedy, loot-seeking behaviour. (The protagonist really seems to like expensive stationery.) At worst, it’s a rote, unfun exercise in getting from point A to point B, with nothing compelling in between. There would be more excitement in driving across the prairies.

But Thief tries to entertain. Oh yes, it tries. It’s got setpieces ripped straight from better games, like Battlefield or Mirror’s Edge. It’s got boss fights, because those fit soooo well in a stealth game. And if you’re still not entertained, it’s got a brothel full of female prostitutes with bare breasts, because if you’re gunning for an M rating from the ESRB, you might as well take advantage of it, right?

Nothing about Thief justifies its existence. It’s just a pointless, abysmal effort trying to cash in on gamers’ love for the titular series. If you haven’t played it yet, don’t bother with it. Go play Dishonored instead. Or go drive across the prairies. Either option would be a better use of your time.

(You can read my review of the game here.)

1. Journal

Journal

I feel like the Grinch for naming Journal the worst game of 2014. Shouldn’t I be championing indie labours of love?

I should… but I won’t, because Journal is a laughably stupid piece of interactive fiction. It’s poorly written, its characters are uninteresting, it’s emotionally manipulative, and it constantly withholds information solely for the sake of generating twists, because otherwise, it wouldn’t have a fucking plot. There’s no point to this boring interactive adventure, other than possibly to deliver the message, “Kids are fucking stupid and don’t really understand adult problems.” Well, no shit. I didn’t need to spend two hours with a cowardly brat to figure that one out.

It’s possible that if I had children of my own or had recently experienced the loss of a loved one, I would have better appreciated Journal. People tend to identify with different creative works at different points in their lives. But at this point in my life, I have little to no tolerance for emotional manipulation, opaque symbolism, or annoying protagonists who wear red dresses and berets. Journal is awful. If you want some amazing, heartfelt interactive fiction, go play Gone Home instead. Life’s too short to bother with trash like this.

(My playthrough of the game is available for viewing here.)


Well, that does it for my favourite and least favourite games of 2014. 2015 doesn’t look like it has too many exciting games on the horizon, but there are still some things I’m looking forward to. I’m hoping to see the next act of Kentucky Route Zero, the conclusion of Broken Age, Firewatch, 3D platformers A Hat in Time and Lobodestroyo, whatever the hell Bear Simulator turns out to be, and the rest of Tales from the Borderlands (which I haven’t started yet. I should get on that.)

In any case, this seems like it’s going to be my last post of 2014. See you on the other side, my friends!

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