Favorite Games – 2014

Memorable Videogame Experiences in 2014

Hitman Go – Such a pleasant surprise. Elegant, tight and cohesive. Sometimes a game’s presentation is part of the pleasure, which is certainly true here.

Sir, You Are Being Hunted – Humor, atmosphere, and taut moments of evasion. As a player, you might secure a moment’s rest, but then you’re imperiled again (by aristocratic British robots, no less). Just hearing the music gives me chills.

Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls – What a recovery from the game’s initial launch. Revised tuning, new modes, and everything I love about the pace and tactical twists of that game, racing along together in co-op.

Queers in Love at the End of the World – Powerful in concept and execution, everyone should play this ultra-short, but tender and apocalyptic text adventure game. It still haunts me after playing through it off and on since release.

Monument Valley – I’m not the biggest nostalgia retro videogame person to be honest; my formative games were not the classic Nintendo titles that seem to drive so much indie game art and mechanics. So while I look cautiously toward games like this, Monument Valley pivoted my expectations and won me over with charm. The art style and the fixed camera, composition-driven perspective instantly re-frame my mind, taking me to a dreamy place beyond reality, a place with class, for lack of a better way to put it. The M. C. Eschereque puzzles are interesting and well paced, ramping up from an almost nurturing starting difficulty. Bravo all around.

Desert Golfing – Not normally my type of experience, but the minimal aesthetic and physics-driven gameplay are truly standout. I still don’t know if the levels/holes are fully procedural, but I have played nearly 1000 holes (with a 2.8 par, I think), and I admire the game so much for what it does.

The Talos Principle – As others have said, the game elevates itself through the great integration of themed narrative. The philosophical ground is mostly familiar, but solidly built and relevant. The way it’s interwoven with the navigation of the game is a lesson for all of us making games with story and characters. That doesn’t even touch on the brilliant puzzle design, which is supported by a set of interesting, consistent game mechanics that often feel like they enable improvisation. Puzzle games normally frustrate me, and the Talos Principle instead – even at its hardest – feels like it’s expanding my mind through epiphany. It’s emotionally moving with well-engineered interactivity.

Honorable Mention

State of Decay – Technically released in 2013, but I played it late in the year and into 2014. (Plus, the DLC kept me going through parts of last year.) Noteworthy on a personal level, despite “zombies, apocalypse,” because of the desperate improv moments it gave me, combining tools and tactics to pull something off. Also, I just want more games that mix home-building and home management with action.

Mountain – When you’re in the right state of mind, this can be really reflective. It’s a boundary-pushing take on what interactive media can deliver.

Luxuria Superbia – This is another late 2013 entry, but I played it during 2014. I’d always kind of laughed off the idea of a videogame that could evenly partially capture sex, which I perceive as more full-bodied, multi-sensory, and deeply related to all the personal psychology firing off during the act. But Cara Ellison‘s critical writing on the subject sent me looking for this game. Playing it with (or for) someone else is a breakthrough experience in terms of what games can evoke, parallel to flirting and touching.


It was another interesting year for game criticism too. As usual, Critical Distance is a treasure trove of thought, summing up the year better than I ever could.


Sacrilege by Cara Ellison


A month or two back, I was alternating between several games – the shipping version of Gone Home, a nascent version of the Novelist, and Far Cry 2, which I wanted to replay for the third time on the Infamous setting with Dylan’s Mod and SweetFX installed. Around the same time, I played the brilliant and moving Papers, Please – a game that is hard to include in lists because of the way commas fuck with my head. Papers, Please is a really good example taking a situation and exploring it deeply.

Compared to the amount of free time I have, I can barely keep up with the good games, books and movies being created.

Somewhere in that mix, I played through the IF game Sacrilege, and found that it had a fairly profound impact on me, continuing to resonate even now. It’s constructed of energetic, well-written prose, but since you’re driving it along, reacting to the ideas at your own pace, the impact goes deeper than that. More importantly, the protagonist-perspective and the mediation of the player’s options evoked a constant stream of realizations, popping off in my head as I played through four or five times.

Sacrilege filled my mind with realizations about the interplay of personality archetypes, feelings of abandonment that I still harbor, and the absolute cafe-bombing power of social failure. There were times when it turned me on, filling me with the drive to pursue. The entire thing was fascinating, seeing desire from within one particular woman’s perspective. It’s all about what people need from each other balanced against risks and the terror of social rejection; the delicate auto-manipulation required to maintain confidence and resist screaming from the anxiety inherent in seeking connection, which at times feels like trying to keep a kitten alive while its heart is out on the operating table.

The notion of youth and soul (and time) as precious, not to be squandered on sex with someone unworthy, is not a concept native to my thinking. Another way the game is a fascinating look at the world through the eyes of someone else, even if this praise risks categorizing the author-designer as too “other” from my own life.

Mild spoilers, but the notion of the friendly NPC slipping the hero a book was rad; reading it in a club made me laugh in a great way because it was something I’d do if I met such an NPC. The text makes a point about the way men are constrained, developmentally – leadership is a requirement, with all the failure and high stakes anxiety that brings about. The simple honesty of the term fuckplan is so great. Another non-native concept, but it instantly opened my eyes to another murky part of the world, of life. The evoking of the YEAH YEAH YEAHS through the game name and MAAAAPS created a kind of synergy. As someone with a lifelong kind of mild body/facial dysmorphia, I found the protagonist’s confident desirability very powerful. Sacrilege is rich, and was crafted in such a way that it produces an endless series of reactions in the player. I’m not sure if this means it’s packed with ideas, or if – even more clever – it unrolls in such a way that leverages the player’s own experience and prompts self-reflection that manifests as ideas.

Even as an atheist, I felt an embedded Biblical reaction to the names of the men. Insecurity ran through me when John was described as tall, and upon hearing a “twenty-something body” described as hot. Awe-struck, I stopped playing and sat back to absorb this moment that made me feel like I’d been in the perimeter of some kind of minefield; deadly territory that seconds ago I’d been skipping through, but now had to stand frozen, considering how to inch out and away. Playing, you’re caught in a social trap that you cannot even see, which is fucking terrifying. It’s all made worse because we’ve all lived through those social situations that make up the game’s narrative world, where you cannot stop and consider because the clock is running and to pause would be weird, so you push ahead. And as you do, you’re screaming internally at the mistakes you’re making. Sacrilege, more than anything I’ve experienced, touched upon the power we give other people over us, to define us – to define our status as winners or losers – which is completely illusory in most cases, but can be mind-destroying anyway.

There were bits I found brutally cynical, touching upon heart-breaking aspects of some romantic tangles. At one point the game drives home the protagonist’s dilemma, the choice between two of the men, in such a painful way that I wanted to stop playing, but couldn’t:
The guy you are going to hurt
The guy who is going to hurt you
The are only two options

So brutal. So much hunger, need, desperation and risk.

because you might not be offered
something like it again
they never actually
give you anything
Instead only take
When they want
place you out on the chessboard
egos think they will always have pawns

Sacrilege is worth your time, but I’d recommend playing it when you’re alone and in the right frame of mind. It’s short enough to play a number of times, which will let you see all the angles.

About the game, Ellison says, “…I really wanted to make a ‘dating sim’ for the Pulse Pounding Heart Stopping Dating Sim Jam and instead of making it about weird and wonderful sexual experiences I wanted to make it about the heart stopping drudgery of being heterosexual in a world where heterosexuals are conditioned not to talk to each other, or listen to each other, or really have any idea what they are doing. So I made this Twine game. However, I famously have somewhat manic-depressive tendencies, and therefore it takes place in a red-hot club atmosphere where your eyes are being singed and music is forcing its way into your skin and you love every second of your descent into hell. Oh, yes, and turn your volume up, there is music at a certain point.

Play Sacrilege.


Favorite Games of 2012

I’m probably forgetting something, but if so I’ll update later. These are the video games that gave me my favorite experiences this year, certainly not in any order. There are a lot of noteworthy games I played and respect this year – like Fez, Spelunky, Walking Dead, Soundshapes, Quantum Conundrum, or Mark of the Ninja – but this is meant to be a list reflective of my own finicky tastes, as a player, not a “best” game list. For me, this list represents the most powerful interactive experiences I had this year, emotionally or intellectually.
  • FTL: For giving us emergent stories to tell; a lovingly crafted setting; for enabling players to explore systems. (Give us a persistent campaign!)
  • Journey: Transcendent, soulful, and aesthetically unified; for the music, art, movement, experience; for cleverly eliminating channels of Internet communication that might mar otherwise beautiful social encounters.
  • XCOM: An update on a personal favorite; I stopped after losing all my friends in Iron Man mode, which is a testiment to the finality of the associated feelings.
  • God of Blades: Such a lovingly-crafted world; the innovation of the “library unlock” feature; great environmental art; an earnest homage to a much-loved literary mileau; for reminding people that Elric was cool.
  • Far Cry 3: For letting me play at my own pace, an high or low drama as I want; being attacked by an alligator; killing a shark with an AK-47; fleeing enemies and using a tiger to get them off my tail.
  • Borderlands 2: Game systems that keep players moving, exploiting, reacting tactically; co-op fun with my wife; noteworthy art style and humor.
  • Waking Mars: The “action gardening” game, taking the path less followed; for allowing players to screw themselves by creating their own incredibly-difficult emergent problems; gorgeous alien landscapes.
  • 10000000: Always felt like a problem to be solved, in a good way; for having an actual ending; some part of me finished there, telling a story and mastering the hostiles of the world.
  • Cyberqueen: For deconstructing power fantasy; lovingly reminding me of System Shock, one of my favorite games of all time; for expanding the narrowly defined boundaries of video game subject matter; for excellent writing and a cutting sense of humor(?).