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.


In Space, No One Can Hear You Curse



I just had the chance to play CAPSULE, the space (?) horror game by Adam Saltsman and Robin Arnott. It’s amazing, the kind of experience that only comes from the tiny subset of games that work on me.

Stark and understated, it’s the interactive medium’s answer to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The sound effects and art direction in the game are stylish, but in the service of the game’s desperate, doomed mood – discolored glass (or is it icy?), creaks and groans, darkness closing in as you run short on air.

Playing with the UI, learning the mechanics and controls, involves the kind of ‘sense of discovery’ that only some games provide. And this is a sensation that seems increasingly uncommon, as game developers continue to strive for clarity and “ease of use,” usually at the expense of the most powerful parts of the interactive medium. Through all the years, I still seek out this experience: The early days of experimenting with the physical forces in Lunar Lander, learning the give and take of the systems; that first stealth encounter in Thief, where you’re trying to gauge the acuity of the senses of the guards, the effects of lighting on stealth, and the distance at which you’re safe; a clever puzzle solution snapping into place in Portal as you manipulate the geographic flow of space itself; moving time back and forth in Braid, ears attuned to the associated changes in music; simply exploring the world in Sword & Sworcery; realizations exploding in your head the first time several of Far Cry 2’s systems close on you like a noose – fire propagating through tall grass, distant enemies being drawn into a fight, listening to your downed ally crying for help from (somewhere!) nearby, herd animals getting caught in the crossfire. (This murkiness and that uncertain exploration of controls and mechanics was one of the goals Raphael Colantonio and I discussed for Dishonored. Whether we achieved it or not, it’s rare in games now and CAPSULE does it incredibly well.)

The game mechanics are simple, but brilliant, forcing the player to balance oxygen and engine power. Unless I’m inferring too much, when you’re rich in air, you can afford to go very slowly. And when you’re up on fuel, you can burn it fast to save oxygen. None of this is relevant until you’re ready for it, because another thing the game handles superbly is the ramp-up curve; each time you dock with another in-space entity, the mechanics change, making the game harder and more complex. The only thing I struggled with in CAPSULE was breaking my brain away from interpreting the game as 3D first-person navigation. That, and the heart-stopping tension. (Play with headphones, in the dark! Alone!)

Part of Austin’s indie scene for a while now, Saltsman is kind of a cosmic superhero boy scout and Arnott is like that thing that has been following you through a scary forrest, with bells and bits of bones interwoven through its hair, only later you realize it’s some kind of friendly spirit guide. This is my way of saying that they’re both amazing creative people, making interesting games that I’ve been lucky enough to play.

So far, I’ve only played CAPSULE up to the point where I got meters away from the Science Lab before asphyxiating. The desire to play again – right now – is gnawing at me in a good way, but I’ve learned to savor games like this.

Special thanks to Brandon Boyer for helping to motivate this sort of project, all Gertrude Stein-like.

PS) As others have pointed out, it’s not necessarily (or not even probably) set in space.

Download CAPSULE here:

Statements from Saltsman and Arnott:

Portal Action

Traveling back from Florida, my Very Clever Girlfriend(tm) noticed a great Portal photo op. (Portal is another Game of the Year contender…way to go Valve and the Narbacular Drop/Portal team. The gamplay is great, but the fiction and atmosphere are equally impressive.)