There are surprises every year in video games and 2014 was no exception. Some of the surprises from the last twelve months were good enough, for me, to stand head and shoulders above everything else that came out.
What shocked me about my favourite 2014 games? How about the fact that the Nintendo-exclusive Bayonetta 2 was just as bawdy and sharp as the series' first game? I also wasn't expecting a licensed Lords of the Rings title to usher in a gameplay wrinkle that made it a critical darling. It's great to have your eyes opened to new viewpoints. Here are the games from this past year that did that for me.
This War of Mine
Life sucks sometimes and getting through a single day can feel like an immense victory. It's a truism of human existence that might show up as a single ingredient in most video games -- the beginning/middle/end part where things are hard. But scarcity, near-hopelessness and emotional endurance are the main offerings in This War of Mine. You're not trying to be superhuman in the conflict survivor sim. The goal is simply to hold onto whatever scraps of normal everyday humanity you have left as the game throws tough choices and grinding circumstances at you. There's a light at the end of the tunnel but it's going to take everything you have to get there.
This year, we got a video game that served as a symbol of hope. Part of it was the hope that the oral traditions and resilient culture of Alaskan Native peoples could travel and thrive far beyond their homelands. But the other part of Never Alone's emotional impact was in illustrating how relationships can thrive in the darkest and coldest of climes, told through a fable passed down for generations. Now that this culture's been communicated through a game, it has the chance to be much more than a curiosity. Warms the heart.
With all the grimness to be found in the framing and plot concerns of most big-budget action games, it can be easy to forget that, in the main, the player is performing acts of pure ridiculousness. Climbing multi-story buildings with just a pair of hands, dodging hundreds of bullets, that kind of thing. Bayonetta 2 feels like a stroke of genius because it embraces the lunacy of all that far-fetched fictional skill and then gives players enemies and a combat system that lets them execute in ever more stylish fashion. Its absurdity starts where other games end and Platinum keeps upping the ante until it's practically impossible to climax anymore. But take a little break and you can go right back to it…
At first, this Playstation release comes across as so visually foreign and mechanically simple that it might seem off-putting. But, really, all Hohokum is doing is boiling down its play to the most elemental interactions possible: move around, touch things, watch, listen and repeat. With its wild, loopy aesthetic and wonderful music and sound design, it gives back far more than it asks for.
I'll be playing this classic mobile puzzle game forever, just like I still play its spiritual predecessor Drop7 a few times a week. It's the kind of game that's perpetually refreshing my own awareness of participating in an architected system, stretching the limits of just how far I can think ahead. When a new symbol pops up on top, I always ask myself, "Is Threes trying to help me here or hurt me?" People like to call games like Threes time-wasters but, to me, playing Threes is like refining the edge of my own mental blade. It doesn't feel like a waste of time at all.
The lack of food and water means that you can die very quickly in a desert. Desert Golfing doesn't let you off the hook so easily. It marches you forward mercilessly, with no resets or magic workarounds to preserve your pride. Got a string of hole-in-ones? Great. Now here's a hole that will take 74 strokes to get past. Every flubbed or poorly executed stroke adds to the oppressive load of tension that accrues as the game goes on. You'll keep playing, though, because those moments where you do sink an improbable shot? Like finding ice cubes in the Sahara.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
A bound-to-be-terrible licensed game, people thought. And worse still, one that looked like it lifted big chunks of the Assassin's Creed and Batman Arkham design templates to boot. But rather than winding up dead-on-arrival, Shadow of Mordor wound up delivering one of the freshest mechanical ideas in some time. The Nemesis System isn't just a cool gimmick that provides a new set of challenges. It winds up making the indistinct hordes of enemies -- and the gameworld they inhabit -- feel more alive, growing in strength and purpose like the player's own, AI-controlled opposite number.
It's not in its final form yet but I loved that the early version of Naomi Clark's board game takes inspiration from a pervy anime sex trope and totally subverts it. Consentacle deconstructs and reconfigures the single-minded dysfunction of tentacle rape into a complex metaphor of what it's like to receive and give pleasure with another person. Playing it was like walking through the components of a racy yet mutually respectful seduction.
The Sailor's Dream
We all look back at the past, no matter how much we may deny or resist. The latest game from the makers of Year Walk and Device 6 manages to encapsulate the reasons that we want to both remember and forget the pivotal events of our lives. The Sailor's Dream also mimics the twisting, translucent experience of memory, sending you down paths where there are indeed things to recall but not the slippery bits that are crucial for moving on.
Super Time Force
One of Super Time Force's big wins is in taking an oft-hated game design idea -- revisiting the same environment over and over -- and making it hilarious, fun and inventive. The recursion in STF is great because you're seeing the past unfold right next to the present and can play through the same space with different abilities and strategies, thanks to a crew of hilarious action-hero send-ups. You'll get a time-travel headache if you try to make quantum sense of its causality. So don't. Just play it again and again in a series of never-ending minutes.