Look past the conflict in 2014, and you'll see an incredible amount of great games for all kinds of tastes.
That widening variance, and the sheer volume of games released these days, is why last year, Gamasutra started running individual staff members' top five favorite games they played during a given year.
I figure that by now, it's a bit disingenuous to pretend to come up with a "definitive" "Best Games 20XX" list when the fact is, there are so many games out there of all kinds that our small staff could never get around to playing all of the worthy titles out there, let alone agree which handful are "The Best."
That said, our small staff, naturally, played a whole lot of games this year, and we all have strong opinions about the ones we loved.
- Kris Graft, editor-in-chief
Remember when you were little, and advertisements would try to get you to read by showing you tomes splitting open, moonbeams and dinosaurs swelling from the pages, cartoon children tumbling into the open book as if it were a portal to another world? Animations showing the words "coming alive" beneath your fingertips? And of course you understood it was a simplistic analogy for the imagination. Books didn't really "come alive" under your hands.
But when you play 80 Days, written by Meg Jayanth, you remember the dream. Vibrant, touchable and immersive, a readable journey with subtle game mechanics, no trip with Mr. Phileas Fogg the same as the last. I played it on a long train trip, the world speeding by out my window, the world speeding by inside the magic frame I held in my lap. - Leigh Alexander (@leighalexander) Leigh Alexander's Top 5 Games
Finally, finally, people are starting to do story right... With 80 Days, what little there was in way of mechanics was directly influenced by the story, and directly influenced right back. Managing your finances and Fogg's health, as well as the items in your trunk and the relationships you had with the people you met along the road and the road itself, all of it blended together so seamlessly that you never felt disconnected from any part. - Phill Cameron (@phillcameron) Phill Cameron's Top 5 Games
1001 Spikes is the most tightly-designed platformer that came out this year. There is little room for improvisation here, and the hand of the designer is obvious: "You will get through the level this way, and if you deviate from my intention by one pixel, or if your movement is off by a nanosecond, YOU ARE DEAD." Even with its two-button jumping feature, the designer is telling players, "You have two choices: Jump this high or this high." It approaches puzzle design, in that solving a problem requires a rather specific solution.
Lives (1001 to start) are the currency for learning each and every stage in 1001 Spikes, and learning this game costs a lot of that currency. Many people will be turned off by that, because, as anyone who's played this game knows, this game is very difficult. But is it sadistic? Are people who play it masochists, as reviewers like to say about these kinds of games?
Nah, 1001 Spikes is pure joy. Just remember that when you feel like breaking your controller in half. - Kris Graft Kris Graft's Top 5 Games
Interestingly, The Banner Saga feels like an odd inverse of 80 Days. Instead of being simple on the mechanics and systems and restrained with the scope of the stories, The Banner Saga went the opposite direction, setting up a huge grand narrative with constant interruptions of both combat and resources to manage. Instead of a romp it was a slog, a slow march where you shed the people who depended on you through war and attrition.
But what made it work was how it used its context to frame smaller stories. It had multiple protagonists, and that in turn allowed it to have its grand narrative cake and eat its tasty smaller story cupcakes. With the giant Varl you had the greater scope of the conflict, following the efforts to repel the mechanical Dredge, whereas with Rook and the humans it was more about survival and escape.
While the turn-based combat sections weren't quite as immediately engaging, the mechanics of it created a weird counterpoint to the stories that you were telling. The effects of your choices could be felt there, putting your heroes at risk could save more lives, or a poor decision with your supplies could start your heroes with fewer hit points than normal. There are greater events with greater consequences, but it had the interesting effect of forcing you to behave like a leader, weighing the pragmatic choices against the emotional ones. These were the people who would win the war, even if they were occasionally unsavory, or unstable, or any other negative quality they might possess.
The differing tones and the different scopes of those stories allowed Stoic to do a lot with a potentially overwhelming series of events, with the only problem being it ended with the story incomplete. Most importantly, the choices were varied, ambiguous and personal, with no black or white, clear-cut differences between them. - Phill Cameron
Talk about surprising -- where did this come from? Nintendo has a reputation for craftsmanship, but this game lays bare all the tools in its toolbox (or is that all the toys in its toybox?) Playing it is like a peek behind the curtain.
What started as a mini-game mode in last year's Super Mario 3D World has grown into a game of its own, and the result is as charming and compelling as it gets. If you like puzzles and toys, this game should be at the top of your want-list.
Each level is a miniature world with its own identity, purpose, and play-style -- a universe of handmade challenges. It's a testament to carefully creating every level, and the approach of fully exploring an array of simple ideas.
All this is presented with no goal other than to entertain the player. Charm is something our industry doesn't excel at, these days, and charm is something this game exudes -- charm with a purpose. [For more on Captain Toad, read my blog on its design.] - Christian Nutt (@ferricide) Christian Nutt's Top 5 Games
The absolute dark horse of the list and my undeniable favorite, too. The visual novel genre is starting to get a little respect in the West, and the two Danganronpa games that NIS America put out this year deserve to be a big part of why: They're fresh, surprising, and inventive even as they cling to the sorts of long, linear stories that so many game designers say the medium would be better off without.
The series got its start when the developers at Spike Chunsoft considered how a once-popular but now moribund genre could be refreshed; turns out you can do it through a mixture of clever writing and unexpected gameplay ideas.
Putting a bunch of characters into a closed environment and watching them kill each other off is not at all an original way to build a mystery story. Danganronpa, then, is made fresh by its approach to characterization and its writer's willingness to go absolutely anywhere and do anything.
The trick is that the game manages to stay on the rails while doing it. Kazutaka Kodaka, the game's scenarist, managed it by breadcrumbing revelations through the entire game.
The fact that Danganronpa is so stylized and atypical (look at those characters, that setting) yet so understandable and relatable is an incredibly neat trick. - Christian Nutt