It’s (finally!) end-of-year-list time! High fives!
This year my best-of list has ballooned to include a backlog-busting forty games, and I could have gone on if I’d wanted to. 2014 was a staggeringly good year for ye olde digital entertainment – most of the games I was looking forward to playing have been delayed into the coming year, but a raft of unexpected newcomers more than made up for the shortfall.
I’d go as far as saying that 2014 was probably my favourite year for video games, ever – 1993, your goose has finally been cooked.
(And it’s a shame that the year will also be remembered for the shitstorm of harrassment and intimidation which only served to reinforce every negative gamer stereotype there ever was.)
One sticking point when compiling the list, and it’s one echoed by pretty much everyone who’s done a list this year, is how to deal with early access stuff. Should a game be excluded because it’s technically not released yet? In the end I decided to simply ignore it and just rank the games as I see them – if a game was fun enough to be considered in the first place, then that’s ‘finished’ enough for me. The same applies for demos and new ports of older games, both of which make an appearance below.
If you notice any suspicious absences, almost certainly it’s because I simply haven’t played them yet. There’s quite a few which I didn’t get to and I’ll do a round-up of the more obvious ones after the list proper.
Before we get started, a couple of notes. Firstly, the platforms listed for each game only indicate what I played them on (hence the dominance of Linux stuff) but most of them are available on other formats too, so check out the websites to see if you can get them for your plaything of choice. And finally, you can click on almost all of the screenshots below to get nice, embiggened native-resolution versions. I figured most of these games are beautiful enough to deserve being admired in their proper full-screen majesty.
But enough rambling. TO THE VIDEOGAMES!
40 ♥ Magical Makeover ♥ (S. Woodson; Web)
This one’s a surprise, even for me. Its twin targets of fairy stories and facile dating sims are both completely off my radar and even the silly use of non-alphanumeric characters in the title irked me a bit. However, looking back it’s one of the best Twines I played all year. Plenty of likeable snark in the writing, and the whole ‘teenage angst meets witches’n’dragons’ thing hints at what might have been had John Hughes ventured into the fantasy genre.
39 Goat Simulator (Coffee Stain Studios; Linux)
Oh, come on. It was a fun throwaway couple of hours and never meant to be anything more. And watching a friend joyously tear through it in the aftermath of some fucked up shit was an object reminder of the tremendous positive impact videogames can have on peoples’ lives. If getting behind that makes me some kind of philistine then it’s a slur I’ll wear with pride.
38 Cooking For Lovers (Increpare Games; Linux)
It’s like he’s known me all my life.
37 Small Radios Big Televisions (Fire Face; Web)
This was a short browser-based demo of a full game which might not still be happening, but it had me entranced for the entirety of its brief playtime. While at its heart little more than a simple hidden object game, Small Radios Big Television is a textbook case of style trumping substance – its dreamlike vignettes and lush synthscapes create a beautiful might-be-imagined world which was an absolute joy to get lost in. If ends up becoming something bigger then it can expect a stronger showing in my 2015 list.
36 Secret Habitat (Strangethink; Linux)
Yes! Strangethink was one of my go-to devs in 2014 and a number of his games could have made this list. This cheeky, slightly Warhol-esque conversation starter is the best of the bunch owing to its philosophical ribbing, but his ongoing experiments in procgen are all worth the experience.
35 Mini Metro (Dinosaur Polo Club; Linux)
Ah, what a stroke of minor genius this is. For anyone who’s ever stared at the station map on a much-delayed train, cursing the incompetents responsible and imagining the far superior job we’d do given the chance – that is to say, all of us – Mini Metro provides some well overdue come-uppance.
Oh, and did I mention that the developers are called Dinosaur Polo Club? Because the developers are called Dinosaur Polo Club.
34 This War Of Mine (11 Bit Studios; Linux)
Truth be told, I haven’t yet spent a huge amount of time with this but it’s made a lasting impression regardless. I was wary that a survival game set in the analog of a real-world warzone might backfire and trivialize such conflicts, but 11 Bit have approached the game with due sincerity. They’ve commendably avoided addressing the topic directly, and any newfound awareness of recent Eastern European history will come from post-game Googling rather than in-game screed. In short, it feels terrible to I say I enjoyed playing it – which surely means 11 Bit have succeeded in their remit.
33 Hoplite (Magma Fortress; Android)
I very rarely game on my phone, so it’s testament to Hoplite’s qualities that it’s on this list at all. It takes the classic turn-based strategy format, sneakily recasts it as a logic puzzler then whittles it down to mobile size without sacrificing depth. I just wish they’d port it over to the PC so I’d play it more often.
32 2:22 AM (RoboCicero; Linux)
Way back in the early nineties I was a teenager living in a small country town in Australia and during the school holidays I’d stay up all night watching TV, as teenagers were wont to do. The thing was, this particular town had only two available TV channels broadcasting that late. One was a public channel which showed bizarre art films from around the world, the other was the local commercial station which ran cheesy no-budget infomercials – more prosaic but often no less surreal. Such was my lot (at least until I inherited the loungeroom VCR from my upgrading parents and escaped happily to the welcoming worlds of Gilliam and Lynch).
So forget Kudos and The Sims, this is the most accurate life simulator I’ve ever played.
31 Nidhogg (Messhof; Windows)
Well, it was worth the wait in the end. It’s hard to describe exactly why Nidhogg is so fun, simply because so much of what makes it work is in the feel of the thing. It’s a simple game but it absolutely nails everything it shoots for, and there’s enough depth lurking beneath the pixelated gore to ensure it a life beyond its nominal role as party-starter.
30 Qvadriga (Slitherine; Windows)
Turn based chariot racing? I’m so on board with this notion that Qvadriga would probably have made this list even if it were completely terrible. That it’s actually quite splendid is just a welcome bonus.
29 Mountain (David O’Reilly; Linux)
This zen (or not) take on the old Little Computer People idea works by daring you to look away from the screen and then tormenting you when you do. Why did my mountain change? Is it trying to say something? Does my mountain hate me? Is is all a metaphor for my life? Am I a terrible person? Where did that park bench come from? But the mountain never answers.
It’s also likeably reminiscent of those desktop toys from the early GUI days of the Amiga and MacOS, things like eyeballs that follow your mouse cursor around or cats that jump around on your desktop windows – stuff that’s always there but not as the focus of your attention, only ever being noticed when you switch between other tasks. In that sense Mountain is a game that fits around all your other games, and I hope people run with that idea and take it further because it’s a terrific idea which deserves to be explored.
28 A Date In The Park (Cloak And Dagger Games; Windows)
One of the nicest surprises of the year for me, a small graphic adventure revisiting the short-lived early nineties trend of digitised graphics. The main drawcard is the beautiful location, a real-life park in Lisbon which has been photographed superbly – as an adventure game it makes a fine walking sim, and I mean that in the best possible way.
It starts off in fairly understated fashion before becoming progressively sillier over the course of its hour-long playtime, but the campiness is offset by a wealth of subtle references in the story which inquiring minds will be picking apart well after the game’s finished.
27 Photobomb (Milkbag Games; Linux)
One of those straight-up brilliant ideas you curse yourself for not coming up with yourself. Zipping forwards and backwards through time trying to identify a terrorist by matching up their movements with peoples’ social media photos – it’s clumsy to explain but perfectly intuitive once you play it, and hugely compelling as well. It also gets a surprising amount of mileage out of its barely realised (and blackly humourous) dystopian setting, which gives the game a Papers, Please-esque sense of moral dread.
At two minutes long it’s short and there’s no incentive to replay it once you’ve succeeded, but it’s possibly the best two minutes I played this year.
26 Action Painting Pro (Ian MacLarty; Linux)
A game which can make an artist out of me deserves all of the praise.
25 Hets (Ditto; Linux, Windows)
This unassuming little roguelike platformer had me utterly enthralled in the earlier half of the year. It features the usual check-list of features which are now de rigeur for the form (procgen levels, randomized powerups, permadeath et al), but the creepy inverted color-on-black graphics and the demoralizing observations of your NPC partner give it an unsettling feel all of its own. It plays beautifully too, of course. I can see you all rolling your eyes as I describe this stuff but in a genre which is badly oversaturated Hets is an essential play.
24 The Novelist (developer; platforms)
The first of the Gone Home-likes? That’s probably less generous than The Novelist deserves. The comparison is inevitable, both games being first-person house explorers featuring middle class families sorting out their existential shit. The storylines are archly constructed so that each character’s needs conflict with those of the other two. This, along with the collect-em-up memory diving stuff, makes The Novelist feel more game-y than perhaps it should. The trade-off is the ability to directly influence the outcome, which creates a greater investment in the story than Gone Home’s raking-over-the-coals approach.
As I said, all of this makes it hard to talk about The Novelist without sounding unduly harsh towards it, which is a shame because it’s a beautifully written game which deserves to be played.
23 The Curious Expedition (Maschinen-Mensch; Web)
This is one of the games I considered leaving out on the grounds that it’s too early in development, but it would be miserly to exclude something as joyous as this on a banal technicality like that. It’s Oregon Trail meets FTL on a hex grid and everything about it has been executed perfectly, even at this early stage. And splendidly, it’s only going to improve as it makes its trek towards final release.
22 Wasteland 2 (InXile/Obsidian; Linux)
Another one I considered leaving off the list, this time because I’ve only spent a couple of hours with it. That’s nowhere near enough to get a meaningful impression of a huge game like this, but I had so much fun with the opening missions that I decided to include it on their merit alone. It really is resurrection of those old CRPGs from the 80s and 90s, with all the goodness that entails (and some of the awkward niggles, too). The writing is brilliant, the turn-based battling solid and the whole thing is enough to make you wonder why this type of game went away in the first place – and to be thankful they’re back.
21 Dog Of Dracula 2 (TeamBatsu; Windows)
I’m totally being a cheat with this one, because it came out back in 2013 and it hasn’t seen a re-release or platform port to make it technically qualify as a 2014 game. It’s going in anyway, because I only played it a few weeks ago and it’s simply too wonderful to leave out – a note-perfect riff on the imagined cyperpunk future of 1980s genre fiction which never came to pass. It’s also easily the funniest game I played all year.
If I have a qualm it’s that it’s so entrenched in the hyperneon sci-fi tropes of the 1980s that the references might be missed on those too young to remember them. But probably not – it’s hard to imagine anyone being left nonplussed by something as delightfully inspired as this.
The second part of my Top 40 can be read here.