Look past the conflict in 2014, and you'll see an incredible amount of great games for all kinds of tastes.
That widening variance, and the sheer volume of games released these days, is why last year, Gamasutra started running individual staff members' top five favorite games they played during a given year.
I figure that by now, it's a bit disingenuous to pretend to come up with a "definitive" "Best Games 20XX" list when the fact is, there are so many games out there of all kinds that our small staff could never get around to playing all of the worthy titles out there, let alone agree which handful are "The Best."
That said, our small staff, naturally, played a whole lot of games this year, and we all have strong opinions about the ones we loved.
- Kris Graft, editor-in-chief
80 Days by Inkle
Remember when you were little, and advertisements would try to get you to read by showing you tomes splitting open, moonbeams and dinosaurs swelling from the pages, cartoon children tumbling into the open book as if it were a portal to another world? Animations showing the words "coming alive" beneath your fingertips? And of course you understood it was a simplistic analogy for the imagination. Books didn't really "come alive" under your hands.
But when you play 80 Days, written by Meg Jayanth, you remember the dream. Vibrant, touchable and immersive, a readable journey with subtle game mechanics, no trip with Mr. Phileas Fogg the same as the last. I played it on a long train trip, the world speeding by out my window, the world speeding by inside the magic frame I held in my lap. - Leigh Alexander (@leighalexander) Leigh Alexander's Top 5 Games
Finally, finally, people are starting to do story right... With 80 Days, what little there was in way of mechanics was directly influenced by the story, and directly influenced right back. Managing your finances and Fogg's health, as well as the items in your trunk and the relationships you had with the people you met along the road and the road itself, all of it blended together so seamlessly that you never felt disconnected from any part. - Phill Cameron (@phillcameron) Phill Cameron's Top 5 Games
1001 Spikes by Nicalis and 8bits Fanatics
1001 Spikes is the most tightly-designed platformer that came out this year. There is little room for improvisation here, and the hand of the designer is obvious: "You will get through the level this way, and if you deviate from my intention by one pixel, or if your movement is off by a nanosecond, YOU ARE DEAD." Even with its two-button jumping feature, the designer is telling players, "You have two choices: Jump this high or this high." It approaches puzzle design, in that solving a problem requires a rather specific solution.
Lives (1001 to start) are the currency for learning each and every stage in 1001 Spikes, and learning this game costs a lot of that currency. Many people will be turned off by that, because, as anyone who's played this game knows, this game is very difficult. But is it sadistic? Are people who play it masochists, as reviewers like to say about these kinds of games?
Nah, 1001 Spikes is pure joy. Just remember that when you feel like breaking your controller in half. - Kris Graft Kris Graft's Top 5 Games
The Banner Saga by Stoic Studio
Interestingly, The Banner Saga feels like an odd inverse of 80 Days. Instead of being simple on the mechanics and systems and restrained with the scope of the stories, The Banner Saga went the opposite direction, setting up a huge grand narrative with constant interruptions of both combat and resources to manage. Instead of a romp it was a slog, a slow march where you shed the people who depended on you through war and attrition.
But what made it work was how it used its context to frame smaller stories. It had multiple protagonists, and that in turn allowed it to have its grand narrative cake and eat its tasty smaller story cupcakes. With the giant Varl you had the greater scope of the conflict, following the efforts to repel the mechanical Dredge, whereas with Rook and the humans it was more about survival and escape.
While the turn-based combat sections weren't quite as immediately engaging, the mechanics of it created a weird counterpoint to the stories that you were telling. The effects of your choices could be felt there, putting your heroes at risk could save more lives, or a poor decision with your supplies could start your heroes with fewer hit points than normal. There are greater events with greater consequences, but it had the interesting effect of forcing you to behave like a leader, weighing the pragmatic choices against the emotional ones. These were the people who would win the war, even if they were occasionally unsavory, or unstable, or any other negative quality they might possess.
The differing tones and the different scopes of those stories allowed Stoic to do a lot with a potentially overwhelming series of events, with the only problem being it ended with the story incomplete. Most importantly, the choices were varied, ambiguous and personal, with no black or white, clear-cut differences between them. - Phill Cameron
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker by Nintendo EAD Tokyo
Talk about surprising -- where did this come from? Nintendo has a reputation for craftsmanship, but this game lays bare all the tools in its toolbox (or is that all the toys in its toybox?) Playing it is like a peek behind the curtain.
What started as a mini-game mode in last year's Super Mario 3D World has grown into a game of its own, and the result is as charming and compelling as it gets. If you like puzzles and toys, this game should be at the top of your want-list.
Each level is a miniature world with its own identity, purpose, and play-style -- a universe of handmade challenges. It's a testament to carefully creating every level, and the approach of fully exploring an array of simple ideas.
All this is presented with no goal other than to entertain the player. Charm is something our industry doesn't excel at, these days, and charm is something this game exudes -- charm with a purpose. [For more on Captain Toad, read my blog on its design.] - Christian Nutt (@ferricide) Christian Nutt's Top 5 Games
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc by Spike Chunsoft
The absolute dark horse of the list and my undeniable favorite, too. The visual novel genre is starting to get a little respect in the West, and the two Danganronpa games that NIS America put out this year deserve to be a big part of why: They're fresh, surprising, and inventive even as they cling to the sorts of long, linear stories that so many game designers say the medium would be better off without.
The series got its start when the developers at Spike Chunsoft considered how a once-popular but now moribund genre could be refreshed; turns out you can do it through a mixture of clever writing and unexpected gameplay ideas.
Putting a bunch of characters into a closed environment and watching them kill each other off is not at all an original way to build a mystery story. Danganronpa, then, is made fresh by its approach to characterization and its writer's willingness to go absolutely anywhere and do anything.
The trick is that the game manages to stay on the rails while doing it. Kazutaka Kodaka, the game's scenarist, managed it by breadcrumbing revelations through the entire game.
The fact that Danganronpa is so stylized and atypical (look at those characters, that setting) yet so understandable and relatable is an incredibly neat trick. - Christian Nutt
Desert Golfing by Justin Smith
You wouldn't want to golf in a desert. It'd be like one long exercise in futility, like a sand trap you never get out of. Yet Justin Smith's Desert Golfing is one of my most important game experiences of 2014, a silent and endless slog, just me and my slingshot finger pitching a tiny ball from one awkward, lonesome hole to the next with a soft and distinctive tok.
It may sound florid to call Desert Golfing an exercise in accepting the past, or in surrendering to the things you can't change, but if you ever find yourself awake at 1 AM, wracked with anxious insomnia, your entire surreal world coming down to a tiny white pinpoint on an endless desert golf course, you'll start to understand.
If the reason you can't sleep is power fantasies and business models and death threats and Twitter, you might feel that Desert Golfing, an utterly pure, random-generated, consciously-unfettered and unmonetized golf march through a sand trap to infinity, is this year's most perfect video game. It really is about crossing the desert: Beginning with a hope against hope that you'll reach the other side. That there is another side. - Leigh Alexander
Destiny by Bungie
Destiny was not what I, or, it seems, anyone else really expected. Rather than being Halo-meets-Borderlands, it was more Halo-meets-Diablo-via-WoW, taking the compelling and constant progression of power that makes Diablo something people come back to time and again, and then throwing in the complex and deeply satisfying raid mechanics that were the aspiration, but perhaps not necessarily the experience, of MMO players.
There's something inherently fruitless about a loot grind, and it's what has kept me away from genuinely enjoying Diablo for quite a while. But in Destiny they've managed to dangle enough of a carrot at the end game that pushing your equipment further does have a reward. Instead of an achievement its an experience, and what Bungie have done with their raids, both Vault of Glass and Crota's End, is create one of the most complex and exciting experiences I've had in an FPS in forever.
None of this is to say that Destiny wasn't bungled in more ways than one. Partly, I believe that pressure of expectation on Bungie to pump out another Halo compromised Destiny, forcing it to shift back away from what they originally wanted to do to keep around a vestigial single player experience, and I wouldn't be surprised if that became more and more phased out over time. But what cannot be denied is that, as far as I'm concerned, Destiny is what any console MMO will look like for the next decade. And for that alone, that makes it more important than most of the games that came out this year. - Phill Cameron
Divinity: Original Sin by Larian Studios
This year Larian managed to release a sprawling, robust PC RPG the likes of which I haven't seen since BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins, and in my eyes that's a feat worth celebrating. Divinity: Original Sin hooked me the way Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale did back at the turn of the millennium: by building a vibrant world packed with interesting systems and places to explore, then opening it up for players to approach however they like.
But Larian didn't just pay homage to those classic titles; it improved upon them in terms of both form and function. Original Sin features some excellent bits of design work, including a narrative that can be seen and solved from countless angles of approach and a deceptively simple solution to the problem of implementing real-time cooperative play in an open-world game with turn-based combat.
The makers of Original Sin also deserve a nod for crowdfunding and releasing a commercially successful game that Larian founder Swen Vincke says they've been trying to make for over a decade. Sure, claiming you've succeeded in making a niche game that no publisher would buy thanks (in part) to the pocketbooks of the people is a good PR line, but it also echoes similar sentiments I've heard from developers at studios like inXile and Frontier.
Larian's success funding Original Sin suggests there's room for mid-size, niche-minded studios to survive and flourish using alpha funding tools like Kickstarter and Early Access. The game's triumphant (if slightly delayed) release reinforces popular trust in those funding tools, rendering them stronger for other developers who rely on them. Perhaps I'm being too optimistic, but I hope success stories like Original Sin can make it easier for other developers to crowdfund in the months ahead. - Alex Wawro (@awawro) Alex Wawro's Top 5 Games
Fantasy Life by Level-5
Some games seem born in a flash of inspiration. Others are a product of exacting craft. Fantasy Life is definitely one of the latter. The game is a perfectly tuned pocket-sized world that offers tremendous opportunities for exploration and interaction.
Over the 15 years since EverQuest launched, I've considered playing this or that MMO, but never succumbed. Fantasy Life is the perfect game for someone who wants a taste of that, but without the intense commitment.
The game works as well in long stints as small doses, and is as enjoyable in single-player as it is in online or local co-op. It's a flexible game set in a vibrant, appealing little world that begs to be explored.
It also caters to players who don't have the time or the inclination to devote themselves to one optimal progression path. You can mix and match your tasks and find your own way -- one that's based not on min-maxing but instead on the natural progression you choose simply because it seems interesting.
Underneath an unassuming guise lies an ambitious heart -- a game developed with resolute attention to letting the player make their in-game life their own, and that's what won me over. It's the game I'd been hoping for the last decade that Level-5, whose RPGs so often suffer from a crippling lack of focus, would make -- it turns that scattershot approach into a strength. - Christian Nutt
Gang Beasts by Boneloaf
It's pretty rare that a game can make losing fun. It's exceptionally rare that a game can make it so that I don't really care if I win or not. I mean, I play Dota 2. So, yeah.
But Gang Beasts does it. I'm usually too busy laughing to even care whether I'm the one punching or the one getting punched. It takes the janky physics of Sumotori Dreams (GoTY 2010) and throws it into a wrestling ring, then a fire pit, then two moving lorries, then some window-washer scaffolds. What makes it work is that it's enough of an approximation of a fight, and perhaps more importantly the messiness of a fight that it's simultaneously hilarious and a touch horrifying.
That you have to hurl the unconscious body of your friend/mortal enemy off the edge of the arena and to their death adds an element of showiness to the game that really elevates it. You heft that potato-sack that was so recently hurling jabs at your face, and the whole time in your head there's a chant of "FINISH HIM."
We recently had a bunch of friends around to play a bunch of different local multiplayer games, and while Starwhal, Samurai Gunn, Nidhogg and Tennes were all enjoyed, nothing managed to draw the same crowd as Gang Beasts. There's something inherently slapstick about it, and coupling the ridiculous nature of a bunch of jellybabies in kigus duking it out with the ferocity of their punches makes it almost as funny as Jazzpunk, without needing anything resembling a script. - Phill Cameron
Hohokum by Honeyslug
More than anything, I feel like 2014 really challenged the preconceptions that I bring to any game experience that I come across. After a strong decade of being conditioned to play one particular way, we're coming across a slew of games at the moment that aren't so much bucking the trend as stepping entirely clear of it. Hohokum, for me, was right at the front of that pack of trend-sidesteppers.
Fundamentally, it was a game that refused to ask me to complete it. Instead it wanted me to merely play, to weave and dance my way through its levels, and poke my snake-like head into each and every corner just to see what would happen. Its concept of pace is to entirely remove any notion of it, and just give you as much time as you'd like to do whatever you want. There's no failure, and in the few examples where you need to interact mechanically, it's incredibly forgiving, never resetting progress or forcing you to go back to a checkpoint.
In a lot of ways it shares the qualities of the best children's toys; something that can surprise and confuse the child, but never in a frustrating way. Instead you just allow yourself to become receptive and enjoy whatever happens. It's a very odd thing, when you compare it to the rigorously goal-oriented games we're so used to. Couple all this with adorable animations and a world that doesn't need to make sense, only elicit a smile or a laugh, and Hohokum is a game that I'm happy to thrust in front of a friend who's never played a game before.
And just for being that fresh and friendly, as well as so unrepentantly joyous and wonderful, made it one of the best games of the year. - Phill Cameron
Hoplite by Doug Cowley
Including this game is a bit dodgy if we were only talking about games that came out in 2014; Doug Cowley's mobile strategy game Hoplite finally came to Android this year, but the original iOS version actually slipped out at the tail end of 2013. Despite its late December release I didn't pick it up until some time in February; once I did, I didn't really put it down all year.
To this day it's my go-to game whenever I have a spare moment, and Cowley's adroit blend of turn-based tactical play and endless, procedurally generated levels continues to keep me coming back to prove that this time, I can play a bit smarter. Last a bit longer. Become a bit better.
Put simply, Hoplite is an elegant roguelike that's easy to pick up and hard to put down. Your core challenge is to guide a little Grecian soldier across a series of procedurally generated hex grids representing levels of Hell, each of which is studded with demons, an upgrade station and the exit to the next level. Every time you act, everything else on the map does too. Die, and you start all over again.
You'll die often, and you'll always know why because the rules that govern the enemies, abilities and hazards in Hoplite are clear and absolute. You can master them, then exercise that mastery to reach seemingly impossible depths. In this respect Hoplite shares much in common with mobile roguelikes like Michael Brough's 868-HACK, but its idiosyncratic approach to movement and unlockable abilities (which incentivize novel tactics and allow you to effectively develop your own character builds) differentiates it enough from Brough's work to stand alone as one of my favorite games of the year. Whenever someone asks me for a mobile game recommendation, I start with Hoplite. - Alex Wawro
Jazzpunk by Necrophone Games
Creating a genuinely funny game is incredibly difficult. Making one within the bounds of first-person perspective with a tiny team seems nearly impossible, but Toronto-based Necrophone Games managed to pull it off in spectacular fashion this year with Jazzpunk.
The game is laced with a dry, surreal sense of humor much akin to that of another first-person title released by an indie duo: Galactic Cafe's much-lauded 2013 comedic walking simulator The Stanley Parable. But to my eyes Jazzpunk is better because it's more interactive and, frankly, weirder -- Necrophone manages to weave a steady stream of deadpan humor and sight gags into a noir spoof decked out in eye-straining patterns and hues so audacious you can't help but laugh.
From a design perspective, Jazzpunk plays with the conventions of first-person games in eminently charming ways. The lion's share of such titles treat their objects and environments as tools and obstacles, things to be used and overcome in pursuit of your objective. In Jazzpunk, the world itself is your objective: every level is a gaudy playground filled with things to clamber on, play with and laugh at. Plus, as far as I know you really can't die, which means you're never in danger of killing a joke by having to play through it multiple times.
I could go on about this game for pages, but doing so would spoil the experience of playing it for the first time, and I dearly hope you'll do just that. It's a fantastic example of comedic game design that I think everyone, developer or otherwise, should play. - Alex Wawro
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood by Glu Games
When you become a video game critic you get on board with certain implicit (and often explicit) arguments: Games do not cause violence; they do not promote "values" of one kind or another. They are cathartic, they are fantastical, they are toys. They let you have silly fun, and to think too much about it, or to interrogate one another too much about it, is to "miss the point."
You know, I'm down with this argument. I made it when I was younger, and even though now I'm an adult and can say things like "maybe an experience can't help but be an expression of some aspect of the creator" or "maybe the content we consume both reflects and affects our culture," I still -- despite everything -- will take issue with the common presumption that games are trash or dangerous or both.
Hooky, unintrusive, digestible, memetic, funny, of-the-minute, fashion and celeb culture spoof Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is really good, and no amount of brand power or lunar gravity could have made it so popular if it wasn't (and hey, look: racial diversity and player-led sexuality like it ain't even a thing. Was that so hard?).
Yet then I heard an entire male-dominated game industry wring its hands: It's trashy! It's a sign of the end times. It instills bad values. All of our breastplate armor dragon babe power fantasies up til now were fine fiction, but this feminine Hollywood power fantasy deserves derision.
Funny how that works. You may now commence your comment thread on whether or not Kim Kardashian is a worthwhile human being and "deserves" her fame or not. You know you're gonna do that. - Leigh Alexander
The Long Dark by Hinterland Studio
A lot of developers tell me they want to make really hard games, and I love hard games. I think most of us do. I just like there to be a reason for the difficulty besides its own sake.
The Long Dark is difficult as a facilitator for happy accidents -- eking out as long a life as you can in a brutal, freezing disasterscape, you finally manage to scrape up a serviceable homestead, only to realize you lost your only bedroll somewhere in the wilderness. You finally craft the hook, thread the line, carve the ice and try to fish, only to watch your crude little rigging disappear into the fishing hole, never to be seen again. You build an animal snare and accidentally tumble into your own fire.
Every session is fleeting. You are not going to do well. You are not going to build a life here, in a place like this. It's an especially good game for two people to sit in front of a computer and dither with together -- all kinds of procedurally-generated games promise you those good stories to tell, to take away with you, and you get that here.
But an even better takeaway is this private refinement of your own instinct of the rhythm of life. Each session, you get a little more sleep and a little less to eat, or some more fresh water and a weapon though you shiver within an inch of your life all the while. - Leigh Alexander
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor from Monolith Productions
For my money, no big-budget game released this year proved a better example of what smart, talented developers can do with cutting-edge tech than Shadow of Mordor. In a year that saw a remarkable number of third-person open-world games released, Monolith's first stab at the genre was the only "AAA" game of 2014 that sucked me in and offered a glimpse of a potential future for game design I'd very much like to see realized.
Regrettably, that potential isn't evident up front. Shadow of Mordor doesn't really shine until you've sunk some time into unlocking and mastering its mechanics. You could be forgiven for bailing after a few hours because it's too violent, too rote, and too reluctant to empower you with its full suite of tools.
But if you stick with it, Monolith's trump card -- the vaunted Nemesis system -- starts shuffling the game's deck of monsters against you in an unprecedented way. Enemies that kill you grow stronger, jockeying for rank among their peers and taunting you for past failures even as you come to know their names, their strengths and their weaknesses.
The underlying systems seem straightforward enough -- auto-generate a name and descriptor ("Narbokk the Butcher") when an orc kills you, then tie it to a procedurally-generated set of abilities and weaknesses and pull proper barks based on previous encounters -- but Monolith ties these systems together so elegantly that the antagonists of Mordor come alive in a way I've never seen before.
It's a brilliant example of big-budget design work, one that foreshadows a level of simulated intelligence in games that the industry has been pushing towards for years. If we look back at how the field of game design has evolved over the past decade, it's easy to see where the industry appropriates popular mechanics from trailblazing games like Gears of War, Wii Sports, and Arkham Asylum; going forward, I hope Monolith doesn't mind if the rest of the industry borrows liberally from their Shadow of Mordor playbook. - Alex Wawro
Rust by Facepunch Studios
A lot of people won't "get" Rust. When you first log in to a server, you awaken -- you're born, really -- probably in the middle of a field, with a stone, some basic first aid, and a torch that hardly would last through the night.
The world of Rust doesn't wait for you or feel obliged to ease you in, and neither does its often ruthless inhabitants. It's like merging with heavy traffic: If you make a wrong move, you'll end up smashed up on the side of the road. Stud