Is 2014 the worst year I’ve lived through? Maybe? Leaving aside issues of obvious national and international import, 2014 was probably the most aimless year in my personal history. Video games were bad in 2014. Most of them were broken. The next-generation has landed with a dull, limp thud. Normally deciding on my top 10 is a frustrating exercise. So many games! So few slots to fill! I only had to cut, like, two games from my list this year. That’s how bad it was, overall. Slather on GamerGate, which is either 2014’s least successful consumer advocacy group or its most successful misogynistic hate group (let’s split the difference and admit it’s both, huh?), and you have a real festering shitpile of a year.
Video games! Let’s get pumped. But first…
Evan’s Top 5 Other Things of 2014
5. New Podcasts
This, like a couple other picks on my list, is pretty self-serving, but whatever. 2014 was the year where basically everything I was working on ground to a halt. My response? Make new things to work on!
I’ve had a lot of fun working with Matthew on some of our first forays into covering other media with The Series Regular and You Might Also Like. Neither podcast is perfect, but I’m confident in saying that 2015 will bring even bigger improvements!
4. JRPG Historia Future Perfect
My only problem with JRPG Historia Future Perfect is that there’s not more of it. Season 1’s scheduling got to be a real problem, and we had a lot of dry spells as a result. Luckily, Season 2’s already started, and I think we have a way better set-up planned for every future episode. Just a really fun time, and a surprising challenge.
3. Rewatching Buffy The Vampire Slayer
If you told me to pick my favorite show, I’d retreat to the top three that I devised recently: Adventure Time, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Adventure Time and NGE are transcendent, and certainly more consistent in their quality, but 2014’s rewatch confirmed to me that there’s a very special place in my heart for Buffy’s quippy, mass-market feminism and emotional depth. I could only watch this show for the rest of my life and still have new stuff to think about. And the last two seasons are really, really good. Shut up.
2. Twin Peaks
It’s a small miracle that I hadn’t watched Twin Peaks until our TV podcast came along, seeing as David Lynch is on a shortlist of my favorite directors. Regardless, 2014 turned out to be a pretty good year to get in on 1990’s hottest craze, what with the release of a stellar Blu-Ray set and new episodes announced for 2016. Another small miracle: that I continue to love Twin Peaks so ferociously when about eight of its episodes are utter horseshit. You continue to mystify me, Lynch.
This was a no-brainer. I primarily write screenplays, which is a lot of fun and a lot of work, but it’s not exactly fulfilling. Finishing a screenplay is kind of like buying a really nice canvas, and then waiting on a street corner for an artist to take it off your hands. It’s not “done” in the traditional sense of the word until it’s “made.”
This vague feeling of existential unease is what drew me to RPG Maker, an extremely basic game engine that requires no programming skill. The result? 199X, a game I released for two bucks about a month ago.
And yeah, it’s not much of a game, and it’s not very pretty, and it’s not very long. But it tells a story that could only be told in a video game, and I’d hope it tells that story well. It’s entirely possible no one else will play 199X, but I don’t really care. It is a thing that I wrote, composed, made, and finished. It’s finished! All of it!
Now then. The REAL reason we’re all here.
I can’t stand thinking about Halo: The Master Chief Collection. It seemed so simple! Put four old games on a single disc and make it work. This being 2014 and all, it didn’t go so smoothly. The MCC’s bevy of matchmaking issues prevent it from taking a higher spot on this list, but let it be known that I revisited all four campaigns and had a delightful time. An excellent package for the price, and a smart UI tying it all together. Too bad it’s gone and done broke itself.
I have my fair share of problems with Danganronpa 2. Some of the cases (the third especially) feel only half-written, and the ending has a tendency to tell rather than show. But I also had some great, great times with Danganronpa 2. It’s a clever game that improves on its far worse predecessor, jamming a cast of generally likable situations into a dynamite contrivance and watching them squirm. The mini-games in the class trials are still a drag, though.
VIB-RIBBON CAME OUT THIS YEAR, OKAY?! ANSWER ME THIS — WERE YOU ABLE TO BUY VIB-RIBBON IN NORTH AMERICA BEFORE 2014? NO? AND HAVE WE EVER GIVEN A SHIT ABOUT WHEN A GAME COMES OUT IN ANOTHER TERRITORY? NO? FUCK YOU. VIB-RIBBON STAYS. GREAT SOUNDTRACK. GREAT STYLE. WE’RE DONE HERE. LAUGH AND PEACE, VIBRI. LAUGH AND FUCKING PEACE.
Man, I don’t know. Is Velvet Sundown a video game? Did I dream it? Is it a virtual improv theater? Why is Boyle trying to show me these nightclub plans? Velvet Sundown asks questions, but it only has as many answers as the player supplies. This is Velvet Sundown’s curse, but it’s also the key to its brilliance. And have you seen that sunset?
When I reviewed Dark Souls II, I said that compared to Dark Souls, it was “in every technical, measurable way, better.” I stand by that. Better framerate, better textures, better UI. Is Dark Souls II a better game than Dark Souls? I don’t know. But I also don’t need to compare my video games like vacuum cleaners to know that I really enjoyed my time with Dark Souls II. The changes they made to the formula are slight but impactful, and I liked the focus on smaller, more challenging boss fights. As someone who can run through the first Dark Souls in about five hours, I was relieved to find myself bashing my head against a wall yet again.
Threes is the perfect phone game. It’s always there. It doesn’t give a shit what I’m doing or where I’m doing it. It’s just there. An incredibly potent marriage of mechanics and aesthetic, which is basically all I could ask for out of this platform.
In a year that brought me a Metal Gear Solid game with 40 minutes of gameplay and around 10 minutes of disgusting, tone-deaf sexual violence, I was relieved to discover P.T., a game that drives at the heart of why I give a shit about Hideo Kojima in the first place. Talk about a novel way to announce a game, huh? Where some people objected to the increasingly obtuse design of P.T.’s puzzles, I wound up feeling like they should’ve been even more obtuse. Imagine if P.T. existed for like a month before anyone knew it was announcing a Silent Hill game. That would be crazy!
All that aside, the “Kojima does Silent Hill” thing is a lazy daydream I’ve had for years, and if P.T. is any indication, the guy’s got a knack for horror. This is a scary, scary game — scarier than I find most games, honestly. The claustrophobic atmosphere, and the distractingly gorgeous photorealism make the surreal elements stand out more sharply. The sound design is super on-point. And the Eraserhead baby is in it! What more could you want? If Alien: Isolation is a haunted house, then P.T. is a modern art exhibit.
I did not think I’d like Bayonetta 2. I did not think I’d play Bayonetta 2. And in retrospect, I think there’s only one reason I wound up loving Bayonetta 2: Witch Time. The increased focusing on reactive dodging changed up the way I played a character-action game, and I found it intoxicating. That single mechanic is what helps me appreciate everything else the game has to offer: its incredibly cohesive style and crazy watercooler moments. The discussion around Bayonetta’s characterization has been one of the most fulfilling of the year, with great arguments on both sides. I ultimately came down on the more sex-positive feminist side of the issue, but even if I didn’t, it would be hard to write off everything Bayonetta 2 does so excellently.
It’s no secret that I love Persona, or that I consider Persona 4: Golden my favorite game of all time, or even that I wrote a Persona screenplay (yup, no joke, 131 pages). Still, I found myself increasingly perplexed by Persona Q. I adored the dungeon-crawling and battle system, but couldn’t figure out what they were going for with the narrative. Is this actually just supposed to be low-stakes Persona fun times? There’s got to be more, right?
And then, a huge sigh of relief.
The late-game revelations in Persona Q tie everything together in a truly operatic fashion. The result is a flawed game with its fair share of missteps, but damn if the story it tells didn’t scratch all those itchy, hard to reach places. Persona Q moved me in a way almost no other game did this year, and I think that’s important to reward.
The Last of Us: Left Behind has the unique honor of being an excellent game trapped in a much, much worse one. It’s an underdog story for the ages. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.
Left Behind is inessential in the story of The Last of Us. Ellie describes the plot of this DLC in the last scene of the main game. And yet, somehow, Left Behind stands tall above all that it surrounds, an intimate and vulnerable blip of humanity in The Last of Us’ bleak but relatively ordinary video game landscape. All of the emotions that TLOU tries to evoke are in Left Behind, but it’s all condensed. No filler, no wasted time, no cartoonish villains or misguided detours. Left Behind gets in and gets out with the urgency of a great Mountain Goats song, spending just enough time in its two timelines to enhance both. It’s also a bold and ingenious mechanical repurposing of the main game. Throw bricks at cars for fun; stealth around in a water gun fight; tell jokes out of a pun book and judge their quality. At the center of this is the relationship between Ellie and Riley, which is as deeply felt and well-observed as any modern video game could be. The whole thing is a remarkable achievement in storytelling-as-game design.
It just now occurs to me that my game of the year two years in a row has been an understated, narrative-focused, 2-3 hour game concerning itself with a teenage, lesbian relationship. I guess I have a type? Congrats, The Last of Us: Left Behind. You shouldn’t have been this great.
And congrats, 2014. You’re finally over.