Gamasutra's Best of 2014: Leigh Alexander's Top 5 Games

Here are the five games that I think were most important this year; most expressive of the year, most likely to be remembered (by me) in later years. I like games that feel good and have something to say.
I don't, anymore, think the most important thing about a video game is whether or not it's "fun." Fun is such an arbitrary quality; my fun isn't your fun, things that were fun when we were young aren't fun anymore, like the Discovery Zone, or Myst, or Sonic the Hedgehog. There are too many video games for me to count, and I hope there will be infinite numbers more made, all shapes and sizes. These days I remember my favorites not on "quality level" or "fun factor" or whether or not its level of "polish" successfully lived up to the image created for me by a marketing company. Here are the five games that I think were most important this year; most expressive of the year, most likely to be remembered (by me) in later years. I like games that feel good and have something to say. It's pretty simple, really.

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.

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 80Days, 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.

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.

This War of Mine by 11 Bit Studios

I love survival simulators. If you do too, these are good days for us. This War of Mine delicately shifts the lens away from combatants and onto the civilian cost of conflict. Inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo in the 90s, you lead a randomly-selected, ragtag band of survivors through life in wartime. Nobody ever gets enough sleep, because somebody's got to keep watch. There is never enough of anything to go around. You scavenge and build and count the days, and decide whether to answer the door when a stranger knocks. Decide whether to roll ten crummy cigarettes to trade, or board up your window a little bit better against intruders. There will be intruders. Once we had a former soccer star. We sent him out running at night to scavenge supplies. In the hotel we found, for the first time, not machine parts and harmless rubble, but bad men. They had guns, like, real ones, and hostages. He came back too injured to go out again. The next night we sent the plucky journalist, eager to prove herself. She died there.

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. Check back for more of Gamasutra's staff picks over the course of the week! Read EIC Kris Graft's top 5 right here, blog director Christian Nutt's list here, editor Alex Wawro's list here, UK editor Phill Cameron's here and senior contributing editor Brandon Sheffield's list here.

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