I liked a lot of games this year, and played far more games than I usually do. Yet, save for review, I didn’t find myself playing a single game a whole lot (blame buying a flat / moving flat / having a baby) and only finished a handful – perhaps only The Banner Saga, Transistor, and Shadows of Mordor. Others I played a whole lot – Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dark Souls II, South Park: The Stick of Truth – but wouldn’t put in a top list. Some were great – Out There, Infested Planet, Abyss Odyssey, Nidhogg, Xenonauts – but I don’t have the urge to put them in.
I’m guessing that’s because none of the games really engaged with me. It’s been a long year. Buying a flat, moving house, having a baby. So it’s likely I’ve forgotten some things I love. Some games I love need more work – Chaos Reborn, Prison Architect, Crypt of the Necrodancer. Others – like the Talos Principle, Elite: Dangerous, Wasteland 2, Jazzpunk, Alien: Isolation, Gorogoa, Quadriga, Bayonetta 2 and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – I haven’t got around to yet. But, hey, this is the internet; I’ll just edit them in later when I do.
However, I did love the mechanics from a lot of games, so using lightning, corpse parts and the rotting, repugnant remains of an overstretched metaphor, I’m going to stitch together my own monster, my game of the year. These are the bits of the games this year I loved the best.
Brain: 80 Days
The decision matrices for this game are pretty simple – it’s essentially a choose-your-own adventure game with branching pathways. But the writing (by Meg Jaynath) is so perfectly on point that it brings the entire game up to a new level.
The game takes the classic Phileas Fogg story, and gives it a sharp-toothed reinterpretation. You play Passepartout, who explores the limitless world of Victoriana for his master, the indolent Fogg, buying and selling rare items to maintain their funds, bribing their way onto faster transport, and keeping his master buffed and polished. The twist is that the world isn’t the familiar Victorian hegemony, but something more steampunky and much less stable – everywhere you look inventions are ramping up the tools of war.
80 Days is smart, always well-researched and creates a believable world entirely through description and interaction. I’d love to see more games in this setting and more stories by Meg.
Spare Part: Sunless Sea. Not done by any means and the mechanics often get in the way of the story, but similarly great writing.
Spare Part: Blood & Laurels. A procedurally-generated text adventure set in ancient Rome. Lovely; I wish I’d played more of it.
Heart: The Wolf Among Us
I’ve not always got on with Telltale’s series – neither Sam And Max, Back To The Future nor The Walking Dead connected with me the way that they did with everyone else. For me, the clunky interfaces and barely-working systems got in the way.
Yet with The Wolf Among Us I can forgive everything. The game has such as serious sense of style – from the grim smoking wander of Bigby in the title screen to the genuinely-divided path that runs through it. It had its weak moments – that scandalously short second chapter, the whimpering end – but overall it recreated Willingham’s Fables characters with affection and panache.
Spare Part: The Banner Saga. An original setting, a dark twisty story and annoying combat mechanics. And, no, I couldn’t keep poor Egil alive.
Supergiant’s Bastion follow-up was probably underappreciated due to its visual similarity – saturated isometric combat. But the mix-and-match weapon and buffs system. Each of your weapons has two sockets, and there are passive slots too, and any weapon can go into any of those sockets – weapon, socket, or passive – producing a different form. The way that excessive damage knocked your most powerful weapon out of action meant that you were forced to mix up your styles all the time. Smart and well thought-through.
Spare part: Hearthstone. Should I hate you, Blizzard? You so carefully manipulate our emotions and brains, use such generic concepts (and let’s face it, you plagiarised Games Workshop relentlessly for your two biggest games), but put such charm into the design that we forgive you. And then you do something like Hearthstone, bringing CCGs to the masses. It’s not quite pay-to-win but for evenly-matched players, the willingness to buy cards or sink time to get cards can make a difference – that is, you can get better by investment without improving skill.
Danglies: Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor
Disclaimer: I have done PR and consultancy work for Warner Bros. I like SOM and dislike some of Warner’s other games independently of that. But because of that conflict of interest I’m not going to talk too positively about SOM, but just point you at the Nemesis mechanic and invite you to admire the character it brings to this game’s world. I’d say it’s the mechanic that we’ll see most copied in upcoming games.
Spare part: Luftrausers. The part-combination mechanic is perfectly placed in this morsel-sized Vlambeer product, allowing you to create a hundred different plane types, each behaving differently.
It might just be World of Halocraft, but Destiny has a moreish snackiness to it that manages to get you playing for hours on end. Never mind that the AI enemies are artificially tough and that they rely more on disorientation and damage buffs to increase difficulty. Never mind that the PvP is pretty much Killzone’s, but without the balance that implies.
What matters is those vistas. They tell you that the wide-eyed 70s dream of science – the bearded voice of Carl Sagan creating homilies about new worlds – the utopian geothermal tidal energy towers floating in methane gas giant seas drawing power from the tug of ancient dead suns – haven’t gone away and that man can still be naive and hope, outside of NASA’s careful PR outreach programs.
Spare Part: Assassins Creed: Unity. I suspect it’s down to the jadedness of the press with the series’ endless plot and over-familiar mechanics that this game’s artistry has been so underappreciated. Seriously beautiful. I find myself just standing on street corners, watching 18th century France pootle by, from republicans to thieves wandering off with church crosses to ruffians burning books. Though the quoted stat is that it took an artist 5000 hours to recreate Notre Dame perfectly, it’s the iridescent inside of Saint Chapelle that must be seen. (Disclaimer: I have done consultancy work for Ubisoft).
Dress Sense: Roundabout.
The game itself is an utterly throwaway (if tough) action-puzzler but what a strange, effective use of whimsy and ’70s era B-movie the missions are. The combination of great writing, a silly conceit and amateur actors make for something utterly unique. I can’t stand to play much of it, but I wish I could.
Spare Part: Cosmonautica. Funky music, a really lovely side-on ship interface, even in combat, and great design across the board. It’s sad that the trading system is pretty dull, as is the combat and almost everything else – save for the style. Watch Chasing Carrots – when they find a mechanic that works, they’ll make something amazing.
Spare Part: The Sailor’s Dream. Simogo are the most interesting developers out there. Year Walk was clunky and obtuse, but scarily effective and effectively scary. Device 6 nicely sent me round the bend. And The Sailor’s Dream continues their tradition of defying convention, with a game that’s almost entirely atmosphere and timing.
Guts: This War of Mine
Not an original game – the Rebuild series has done almost exactly this before, amongst other zombie sims – but to set this team-survival sim amidst a war was a good touch. The fragility of your team, the randomisation of your neighbourhood and the permadeath combine for grimly-compelling stories.
Spare part: Neo Scavenger. Exactly what I said above, but with the added bonus that it has the most horrifically-realistic combat I’ve experienced in a turn-based game. The way that a fight turns from something like Hugh Grant and Colin Firth’s slapping match in Bridget Jones to one man stomping another unconscious man to death…
The Game That My Monster Would Play: Endless Legend
Amplitude Studios demonstrated with Endless Space that they had style; they took the 4X space game and made a pretty good. But both of their games this year have been stunning reworkings of existing genres, with Dungeon of the Endless making a grim pixel-art tower defense roguelike and Endless Legend easily beating any recent Civilization game for style, panache and even storytelling. The hugely asymmetric factions and faction story quests (even in multiplayer) are an inspiration to me; we’ll surely see them cropping up in every RTS and 4X around.