If you’re a Tap-Repeatedly veteran you know our Game of the Year lists are not always lists, not always games, and almost never devoted entirely to the previous year. This year, when discussion about the feature began shortly before Christmas, everyone said it had been a bad year for games. “I don’t know what I’ll write about,” they moaned, meaning what games. Me, I worried I wouldn’t know how to write about them. It’s a feeling I’ve become familiar with in the last twelve months, to my sorrow and my detriment.
Here’s the thing: it took an hour and a half to write this sentence.
That’s what 2014 has been about for me, mostly. The rest of the year… looking back on it I realize… god, what an awful year. Terrible things happened to me, worse things happened to people I love. 2014 was a foul, vile thing. I never really thought about it as a whole until just now. If you’d asked yesterday I would’ve said it was okay. But it wasn’t. It was dreadful.
Plus, sometime during 2014 I forgot how to write. I spend fifty, sixty times the effort to produce a tenth the volume. This has been very confusing and led to some strange behavior on my part. It’s like a fish waking up one day and not knowing how to swim. It can still breathe water, and talk to other fish. It can even get around okay, so when it says that it’s forgotten how to swim, all the other fish look at it and say “You’re swimming right now.”
But it knows it’s not. It’s just moving its fins.
All of the above has colored my view of the year. So this list is a little odd and a little awkward. Among other things, I haven’t finished any of the games I mention here, and that’s intentional. 2014 feels like an unfinished year to me. It raced by so fast I can’t imagine where it all went, and yet when viewed in whole it was so miserable I’d rather it’d never begun, and I’m certainly relieved that it’s over, whether finished or not. So let’s sum it up!
2014’s Most Purple: Saints Row IV
Volition’s increasingly-unlike-GTA series is probably over; even if you think you’re not interested in the slightest, and especially if you couldn’t get into the well-meaning but ultimately too-bound-by-tradition Saints Row the Third, go out and buy yourself a copy of this game. Where the Third still walked certain lines Volition clearly felt were expected of it, IV drop-kicks all expectations. It is an interactive fuck yeah, reveling in every zany, absurd, and often laugh-out-loud moment. Nothing is sacred in Saints Row IV – not even game design; you’re granted godlike powers within five minutes – and the resulting self-referentially shameless parody of everything else is a glorious experience.
Innovative, too. Saints Row IV doesn’t just clown around, it clowns around across the whole history of gaming. It’s an open world gangsta comedy most of the time. It’s also a text adventure, an old-skool 8-bit platformer, a mech assault clone, a stealth drama, a visual novel, a Tron-like neon tank battle, and probably a bunch of other stuff too. There are vampires, but just in the part where you find yourself trapped in some vampire fan-fiction. There are aliens, and they’re in the whole game, because alien invasion. Obviously. Zinyak, the Shakespeare-reading, Benedict-Cumberbatch-sounding alien commander is so many miles smarter than the protagonist you control one can’t help but wonder if maybe he ordered the invasion of Earth simply to prevent your character from running the place any further into the ground.
Because you’re the President of the United States.
Except naked sometimes. Which other presidents are too, but less inappropriately so, and with less vomiting.
There’s a robot in the closet of a spaceship; you can have sex with it. It’s your spaceship because you stole it because Earth got blown up. The robot gets there later but don’t worry, there’s plenty to have sex with before it arrives. There’s Keith David. He’s the Vice-President. Because Keith David. Though you can’t actually have sex with him. He has a solid reason why, though.
You know what? Just go buy it. If it’s your first Saints Row, glance at the Wikipedia entry or something so you get a little background, but beyond that don’t worry too much. Just go with the flow. The Saints Flow™ Energy Drink, if necessary.
Something bad happened while I was playing Saints Row IV. I wasn’t playing right at that moment. But it was my “big” game at the time, and this was the kind of bad news that inserts a vacuum into your life, a monolithic barrier such that all events will forever be characterized as before and after it. When the chaos cleared long enough for me to look around, Saints Row IV felt facile, inappropriate, disrespectful even. This had nothing to do with its content and everything to do with the timing. But I doubt I’ll ever finish Saints Row IV. I don’t feel right playing it. It was what I was playing before. I wish it weren’t because it’s just a fantastic piece of work, the kind rarely remembered but deserving. It’s everything every Saints game dreamed of being.
2014’s Most Offensive: X Rebirth
When you talk games “of” a year, you usually assume “best of,” but I’m going to break from tradition here and give an award to one of the worst games, not just of 2014, or 2013 when it shipped, but of the past ten years.
I bought X Rebirth having been amply warned of its, ah, shortcomings. It was one of those misguided moments when I thought maybe I’d see its shortcomings but still enjoy what was there. I’m not a complete imbecile. I expected it to be bad. I was not expecting this.
As gamers we are used to receiving slaps in the face: from buggy products, bad products, unfinished products, from broken promises, deceptive marketing, from lazy work, shoddy work, inept work and the like. We get slapped in the face all the time.
X Rebirth spits in your face, and knows it, and then has the audacity to apologize. Every element of this game is an offense, and the people at EgoSoft responsible for it should, frankly, leave the industry. Within hours of X Rebirth shipping they started apologizing. Apologies are okay. The rank fact of X Rebirth isn’t that it needed to be apologized for; it’s that they must have known this months ahead of time. There’s no way they worked right up to the deadline and shipped what they could, realizing it had holes for which they bore the blame. They knew how bad it was long before then. To me, that’s unforgivably shameless in a way that just releasing a broken product isn’t.
As to the four gargantuan overhauls, each weighing in at well over a gigabyte, released to “fix” the game? Even now with Teladi Outpost in place, X Rebirth isn’t really close to qualifying as a shipping product. Some things should be remembered not for how much they succeeded, but how badly they failed. X Rebirth tainted everyone and everything that touched its pedigree.
2014’s Most Bold: Elite Dangerous
Which makes a nice segue into Elite: Dangerous, the wildly ambitious spiritual successor to the 1980s classic Elite. David Braben is a pretty remarkable individual. He created Elite, of course, but that wasn’t enough so he went and made – not Elite Dangerous – he went and made the Raspberry Pi, putting gigahertz-class PCs in everyone’s hands for $35. Then he heard the stars calling so he rounded up more crowdfunding and produced Elite Dangerous.
I admit I’m not yet 100% sure Elite Dangerous is a game; and I’d advise anyone considering the purchase to do a lot of reading beforehand. Better still, watch a friend play, not for a few minutes but for a few hours. Ask questions. “What are you doing now?” “Why are you doing it that way?” and really listen to answers.
“Space is big,” says Elite Dangerous, and flying around in it calls for humility, even when it’s routine. It abstracts and simplifies plenty, but it takes that simplification to a certain point and stops, because to take it further might devalue the wonder of where you are, the enormity of what you’re doing. And that’s going to be boring to some people, who may not be entirely wrong. Elite Dangerous, which on the surface is very much like EVE Online or (shudder) X Rebirth, is trying to tell you something: that you’re a speck in the cosmos. Look upon these cosmos, ye speck, and despair. The other games are about doing stuff in space; Elite Dangerous is just about being in space.
It is monumental and beautiful, and I’ve sunk many hours into without being sure I’ll sink more. A lot of people feel that way, often simultaneously shelling out big bucks for flight yoke systems and the Oculus Rift devkits some say raise Elite Dangerous from merely inspiring awe and make it capable of enervating the soul. What it really comes down to is whether or not we continue to play. I’m not sure I will, but I don’t regret the purchase – just seeing it is worth what I paid – and I appreciate what Braben and Frontier Developments are trying to do. It is, at the very least, a triumph of development logistics and confidence in design. You just don’t see this kind of thing every year.
2014’s Most Morose: Dark Souls 2
I’m still trudging through this game. Dark Souls 2 didn’t captivate me the way the first did, though that would have been impossible. The experience of Dark Souls can only work once – its power is in your fear of the unknown. Once the unknown becomes known, you can’t just do the same thing again. Had Dark Souls 2 tried to do that it would have been a disappointment. But it didn’t – Tomohiro Shibuya and his team at FromSoft clearly understood their boundaries with Dark Souls 2, creating a triumphant game and a valuable training manual for any developer building a sequel.
Dark Souls was about the end of the world. How could there be a sequel at all, what with the world ending? You could cop out and make a prequel; you could change the fiction so the world didn’t end quite as much as everyone thought; or you could do what I think Dark Souls 2 does (remember, I haven’t finished), and say “what do you mean by ‘end,’ there, mister? Does that word mean what you think it means?”
The mortal enemy of every star is gravity. It lurks without, waiting to crush it. In gravity’s view stars have no right to exist, they’re too big and bright and hot and should be smaller and dimmer and altogether less brilliant. A star keeps gravity at bay by burning hydrogen. When it runs out, it switches to helium. When that’s gone, it tries to burn carbon, but cannot, and gravity has its day. Gravity wins every time. Stars keep trying, though. They are optimistic objects (no one wishes on gravity) and they know they never really die. When a star runs out of fuel, it becomes something else. A world’s fuel is meaning, and when it runs out it just stops having any. That’s a lot more depressing than getting to be a white dwarf.
Here’s what I think: in Dark Souls 2, the world did end. It has ended. It ended a long time ago. You feel that the instant you step onto the sun-choked cliffs of Majula. The world is still there, but nothing matters any more. It is a place without meaning or purpose, just there, just existing. I can’t possibly be the only person who felt this way while playing the game, and I admit I wonder if I’m right about this, or if they took it in a different direction. For that reason alone I’d finish, but Dark Souls 2 is a great achievement, and deserves to be finished for more than just my curiosity. As the ad says… “This isn’t about death. This is about your determination. About not giving up, even though all is lost.”
2014’s Most Two-Sided: Dragon Age Inquisition
I struggled to get into Dragon Age Origins, kind of liked Dragon Age 2 but still drifted away. Inquisition is by far my favorite, and consumed a large block of my time. Play it the way it wants to be played, and there’s something really special here. Unfortunately it’s two games, one great, one… not as much.
As Dix put it,
This is one of those games that has done nothing in particular to offend me, but I kind of want to sit back and vomit some words onto a page about how there is too much of it.
There is too much. Too much game. Too much filler. Too much fiction. BioWare’s writers created a vast, all-encompassing lore – it’s painfully obvious how much they care for this world – but it feels like their world and I don’t know a soul outside of BioWare’s walls who finds it stirring at all. In fact, a lot of it feels like history lessons from a dull, irritable professor. Meanwhile, the stuff happening in the now can be thin and caricaturish. Party members are drawn with wide brushes; even their loyalty quests are just hunt-and-fetch. Poorly-explained elements like crafting feel tacked on. And the BioWare A/B/C dialogue model that once seemed so innovative has long since become old hat.
Don’t get me wrong, at the best of times – and Dragon Age: Inquisition has many of them – it’s an engaging, endearing piece of work. And even at its most mundane it’s stunningly gorgeous, the most beautiful game I can think of. And of course BioWare gets the art of the RPG, the slow transition, the overwhelming start and the dawning comprehension. The “too much” complaint boils down to a sense of scale over depth, and it doesn’t precisely hurt the game, so much as give people a reason to leave it behind. I hope to not be one of them, but a small part of me wonders where I am, and how much remains, and whether it’ll seem like a slog by the end.
The Last of Them
Thought we were done, did you? Wrong! I said I’d forgotten how to write, not remembered how to write concisely.
2014 had no The Last of Us. Maybe that’s why it seemed thin as a year, maybe we were spoiled. Honestly if you evaluate 2014 on its own merits, the games it sprouted seem pretty good – a solid bridge year, at least. After all, there’s plenty that delivered:
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor delivered – AJ nailed it as usual in her post. Mordor is a fantastic game from a studio with real talent I wish they’d use more often. 20 hours in and it hasn’t gotten dull yet; the brutality is okay because it’s against Uruk-hai, the zombie Nazis of fantasy; and it really could fit into the Lord of the Rings canon. There’s little to dislike about this game – which is probably why it’s won so many game of the year awards.
Defense Grid 2 delivered – witness the incoherent piecemeal bits of review I started months ago. The first Defense Grid is a gem of exceptional clarity; the second is one of exceptional cut. Hidden Path proved, and continues to prove, its vast capability as a developer of really good games. There’s potential for more still in this franchise, and assuming Hidden Path follows their established model we may see DLC within the next few months.
Wasteland 2 delivered – I like Wasteland 2 enough to put it in the many-paragraph section, really. Brian Fargo took a mandate from the fanbase and constructed a truly excellent game, the sequel Wasteland deserved, on inXile’s terms, to inXile’s vision. It’s their game, and it shows; hilarious and wrong on so many levels. Wasteland 2 is a game no big publisher would ever have funded, and its success is the point they still seem to miss.
Thief delivered – here’s a game I expected to loathe and found myself enjoying. They did okay, the Thief team at Squeidos. I didn’t finish because I slipped a disc the day it came out and, like a cat with a urinary tract infection refusing to pee in its litterbox, I associated the pain with the game. Thief wasn’t brilliant but it was good, good enough that I should get back into it now that my discs are where they belong.
Dead Rising 3 delivered – I killed a zombie with a sponge. I mean come on. A sponge. That’s worth something right there people.
2014 is over, thank dog, and maybe as time passes we’ll look back upon its games with fonder eyes. Much of what we saw in the past year was solid, but unmemorable (witness Thief). In my case, many good games fell victim to circumstance (witness Thief). And to be sure, 2014 was a memorable gaming year for more than just its games – though hopefully future years will be memorable for more positive things than GamerGate.
Happy New Year!
Tell Steerpike that was too many words at steerpike@Tap-Repeatedly.com.