Gamasutra's Best of 2014: Phill Cameron's Top 5 Games

2014 marked a year where the best games were those that experimented with new ways to play, both from a mechanical and a narrative viewpoint.
This year has been a very strange one. There have been plenty of big games released, but nothing that really knocked my socks off in the way I expected it to. Shadow of Mordor certainly surprised in a mostly positive way, even if I did wish it had introduced the Branding mechanic at the beginning of the game rather than halfway through. But by and large, the major outputs by the big names were serviceable, more of the same with small steps towards something better. I actually liked Assassin's Creed: Unity a lot more than I thought I would, with the foundations that Ubisoft have changed making a big difference, not to mention how beautiful their rendition of Paris is. Far Cry 4, too, was notable if only because that grappling hook mechanic made me wish there was an entire game dedicated to precariously lowering yourself down a rappel in first person while you spelunked through dank caves. Mirror's Edge-cum-Descent, if you will. Really, though, what surprised me was the new and exciting things being done in a lot of different, other places. The seeds of the first few big name Kickstarters started to come through, with Elite:Dangerous rightfully blowing everyone's socks off, Divinity: Original Sin turning out to be one of the best CRPGs in years, and both Wasteland and Dead State holding the flag for old school isometric party-based RPGs with deep conversational stories. More importantly, I feel like 2014 is the year where writing has finally started bursting through in a way that isn't just good, but essential to the games themselves. It's taken a long time for people to start breaking down the walls between story and gameplay, and they've resisted pretty heavily, mostly because it's hard to reconcile shooting men with deep and meaningful drama. Turns out you mostly just have to get rid of the shooting men part. Who knew. So here are the games that really resonated with me this year, in no particular order

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.

80 Days by Inkle Studios

Finally, finally, people are starting to do story right. All it took was to throw out the notion that story and game are separate elements, kept well away from each other and compartmentalized into their own thing. Even the most popular story driven games are guilty of this, with the conversations of something like Mass Effect barely impacting the game parts, the shooting and the gravity twirling, and vice versa.
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. There's a pleasant tension between the choices you're making for expediency's sake, and those you're making out of a personal motivation to continue a story, or pursue a particularly lucrative deal. Or even just a traveler's curiosity, following a rumor that there might be some fantastic flying machine in Baghdad, or a shambling, gargantuan city wandering the vast expanse of the middle east. Much like Hohokum, it's a game that rewards curiosity and receptiveness. That it also kept itself so assuredly away from a grand narrative, confident that the simple push of wanting to get around the world as fast as possible, and to enjoy the stories along the way, meant that it didn't hamstring itself trying to create a satisfying ending. More of this, please.

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 hitpoints that 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.

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.

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. 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, senior contributing editor Brandon Sheffield's list here and editor-at-large Leigh Alexander's here.

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