More than anything, I feel like 2014 really challenged the preconceptions that I bring to any game experience that I come across. After a strong decade of being conditioned to play one particular way, we're coming across a slew of games at the moment that aren't so much bucking the trend as stepping entirely clear of it. Hohokum, for me, was right at the front of that pack of trend-sidesteppers.
Fundamentally, it was a game that refused to ask me to complete it. Instead it wanted me to merely play, to weave and dance my way through its levels, and poke my snake-like head into each and every corner just to see what would happen. Its concept of pace is to entirely remove any notion of it, and just give you as much time as you'd like to do whatever you want. There's no failure, and in the few examples where you need to interact mechanically, it's incredibly forgiving, never resetting progress or forcing you to go back to a checkpoint.
In a lot of ways it shares the qualities of the best children's toys; something that can surprise and confuse the child, but never in a frustrating way. Instead you just allow yourself to become receptive and enjoy whatever happens. It's a very odd thing, when you compare it to the rigorously goal-oriented games we're so used to. Couple all this with adorable animations and a world that doesn't need to make sense, only elicit a smile or a laugh, and Hohokum is a game that I'm happy to thrust in front of a friend who's never played a game before.
And just for being that fresh and friendly, as well as so unrepentantly joyous and wonderful, made it one of the best games of the year. - Phill Cameron
Including this game is a bit dodgy if we were only talking about games that came out in 2014; Doug Cowley's mobile strategy game Hoplite finally came to Android this year, but the original iOS version actually slipped out at the tail end of 2013. Despite its late December release I didn't pick it up until some time in February; once I did, I didn't really put it down all year.
To this day it's my go-to game whenever I have a spare moment, and Cowley's adroit blend of turn-based tactical play and endless, procedurally generated levels continues to keep me coming back to prove that this time, I can play a bit smarter. Last a bit longer. Become a bit better.
Put simply, Hoplite is an elegant roguelike that's easy to pick up and hard to put down. Your core challenge is to guide a little Grecian soldier across a series of procedurally generated hex grids representing levels of Hell, each of which is studded with demons, an upgrade station and the exit to the next level. Every time you act, everything else on the map does too. Die, and you start all over again.
You'll die often, and you'll always know why because the rules that govern the enemies, abilities and hazards in Hoplite are clear and absolute. You can master them, then exercise that mastery to reach seemingly impossible depths. In this respect Hoplite shares much in common with mobile roguelikes like Michael Brough's 868-HACK, but its idiosyncratic approach to movement and unlockable abilities (which incentivize novel tactics and allow you to effectively develop your own character builds) differentiates it enough from Brough's work to stand alone as one of my favorite games of the year. Whenever someone asks me for a mobile game recommendation, I start with Hoplite. - Alex Wawro
Creating a genuinely funny game is incredibly difficult. Making one within the bounds of first-person perspective with a tiny team seems nearly impossible, but Toronto-based Necrophone Games managed to pull it off in spectacular fashion this year with Jazzpunk.
The game is laced with a dry, surreal sense of humor much akin to that of another first-person title released by an indie duo: Galactic Cafe's much-lauded 2013 comedic walking simulator The Stanley Parable. But to my eyes Jazzpunk is better because it's more interactive and, frankly, weirder -- Necrophone manages to weave a steady stream of deadpan humor and sight gags into a noir spoof decked out in eye-straining patterns and hues so audacious you can't help but laugh.
From a design perspective, Jazzpunk plays with the conventions of first-person games in eminently charming ways. The lion's share of such titles treat their objects and environments as tools and obstacles, things to be used and overcome in pursuit of your objective. In Jazzpunk, the world itself is your objective: every level is a gaudy playground filled with things to clamber on, play with and laugh at. Plus, as far as I know you really can't die, which means you're never in danger of killing a joke by having to play through it multiple times.
I could go on about this game for pages, but doing so would spoil the experience of playing it for the first time, and I dearly hope you'll do just that. It's a fantastic example of comedic game design that I think everyone, developer or otherwise, should play. - Alex Wawro
When you become a video game critic you get on board with certain implicit (and often explicit) arguments: Games do not cause violence; they do not promote "values" of one kind or another. They are cathartic, they are fantastical, they are toys. They let you have silly fun, and to think too much about it, or to interrogate one another too much about it, is to "miss the point."
You know, I'm down with this argument. I made it when I was younger, and even though now I'm an adult and can say things like "maybe an experience can't help but be an expression of some aspect of the creator" or "maybe the content we consume both reflects and affects our culture," I still -- despite everything -- will take issue with the common presumption that games are trash or dangerous or both.
Hooky, unintrusive, digestible, memetic, funny, of-the-minute, fashion and celeb culture spoof Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is really good, and no amount of brand power or lunar gravity could have made it so popular if it wasn't (and hey, look: racial diversity and player-led sexuality like it ain't even a thing. Was that so hard?).
Yet then I heard an entire male-dominated game industry wring its hands: It's trashy! It's a sign of the end times. It instills bad values. All of our breastplate armor dragon babe power fantasies up til now were fine fiction, but this feminine Hollywood power fantasy deserves derision.
Funny how that works. You may now commence your comment thread on whether or not Kim Kardashian is a worthwhile human being and "deserves" her fame or not. You know you're gonna do that. - Leigh Alexander
A lot of developers tell me they want to make really hard games, and I love hard games. I think most of us do. I just like there to be a reason for the difficulty besides its own sake.
The Long Dark is difficult as a facilitator for happy accidents -- eking out as long a life as you can in a brutal, freezing disasterscape, you finally manage to scrape up a serviceable homestead, only to realize you lost your only bedroll somewhere in the wilderness. You finally craft the hook, thread the line, carve the ice and try to fish, only to watch your crude little rigging disappear into the fishing hole, never to be seen again. You build an animal snare and accidentally tumble into your own fire.
Every session is fleeting. You are not going to do well. You are not going to build a life here, in a place like this. It's an especially good game for two people to sit in front of a computer and dither with together -- all kinds of procedurally-generated games promise you those good stories to tell, to take away with you, and you get that here.
But an even better takeaway is this private refinement of your own instinct of the rhythm of life. Each session, you get a little more sleep and a little less to eat, or some more fresh water and a weapon though you shiver within an inch of your life all the while. - Leigh Alexander