GOTY 2014 - Nick's Honorable Mentions

No process—even a process six years in the making—is perfect. And while our collaborative list of the top ten games each year is the result of an equal effort from each of us, there are also bound to be casualties of the debate. That's where Honorable Mentions come in, serving as a sort of Home for Wayward and Misunderstood Games. Today, we'll take a look at Nick's list of favorite games that didn't make the cut.

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Every year, we do our best to collaboratively arrive at a list of the ten best and most-significant games of the year. Of course, collaboration isn’t easy, especially when you’ve got five people with wildly different tastes and ideals clamoring for their top picks to land a permanent spot on the top ten. There are always casualties of the democratic process, and I intend to rectify those absences here.

My philosophy on Game of the Year awards is this: to recognize the ten games that we’ll look back upon as being the most significant, ground-breaking and important in the long run. I realize that’s different from many outlets that instead prioritize games scoring highest on a standard rubric of graphics/sound/story/etc., but this approach best fits the reasons why I’ve been covering games for six years and counting: because I think we need people out there surveying the landscape and deriving the important trends in the medium as they surface. I hope I can contribute in some small way to our overall understanding of trends and shifts in gaming.

Anyway, here’s my list of eight gone-but-not-forgotten games of 2014 that I couldn’t sneak onto our top ten – either because of fervent disagreement or lack of exposure. I’ll do better next year.

Monument Valley

ustwogames | April 3, 2014 | Android, iOS

Beauty is a misunderstood concept in games. The enthusiasts among us will spend hours pouring over high-definition footage from a brand-new, big-budget game engine and marvel at the natural motion of foliage in the wind and the complex lighting systems that cause the steel on a suit of armor to glimmer and reflect just so, and we’ll say “this is beautiful.” Or we’ll look at a game with a vibrant color palette and larger-than-life character animation, like Rayman Legends, and say “this is also beautiful.” But we rarely talk about beauty outside of the aesthetic definition. That’s fine, but it’s only considering one limited perspective on the concept of beauty in a layered, opaque and complex medium that’s rife with unrecognized beauty.

I think we all struggle to recognize beauty in design, in motion, in feel, in decisions and purpose – and, if we’re very lucky, when they all come together. Fortunately, this year provided the best case study for the complexity of beauty and the joy of a perfectly realized unified vision in Monument Valley.

Monument Valley is that rare sort of game that unites aesthetics, design, story and the feel of player participation around a single concept, and it towers above any other game in 2014 in terms of executing flawlessly on its mission. Its Escher-inspired visual illusions are the basis of its conflict, and its distinct palette is instrumental in telling its minimalist (but resonant) story.

I love so much about this game: how it teaches its concepts without punishing; how it encourages curiosity at every turn and rewards the player with surprise and delight; how it sticks with you long after it’s over.

In a year where games and gaming culture have been especially full of senseless violence and anger, it’s even more important to find experiences that are positive and enriching things. Monument Valley is that rare and invaluable experience. Don’t miss it.

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TowerFall Ascension

Matt Thorson | March 11, 2014 | Ouya, PlayStation 4, Windows

This wouldn’t have qualified for the top ten because our rules stipulate that no remakes or expansions are eligible, and TowerFall first arrived in 2013 as an Ouya exclusive (of all things). Fine by me. But the much-improved and expanded TowerFall Ascension arrived in 2014, and it was that version that captured my attention like nothing else this year.

Local multiplayer is a crowded space these days, thanks to what I can only describe as a sort of renaissance taking place in the indie-developer scene. This year’s PAX Prime hosted a show floor crowded with local multiplayer games of every stripe, including Gang Beasts, a brawler powered by ridiculous physics, and a four-player, first-person shooter deathmatch called Screencheat, a game where everyone’s invisible and you can only find your opponents by looking at the game from their point of view. To be clear, I love that this is happening. Local play can be such a great way to break down barriers and build camaraderie between people. But for all the experimentation and variety in these games, very few seem especially concerned with delivering a design so refined, so pixel-perfect that it’s able to stand the test of time.

I think TowerFall Ascension is that game. It’s an exceptionally tight, responsive blend of cooperation and competition that creates those “oh my god did you see that” moments like clockwork. Its simple controls make it relatively easy to pick up, but the sheer variety of arenas and the almost endless rules permutations that are possible elevate TowerFall to the same level of replayability and accessibility as Super Smash Bros.

I’ve played hundreds of local multiplayer matches and gritted my teeth as I’ve barely survived the game’s challenging single-player missions (which serve as an excellent training ground for multiplayer tactics). With an expansion coming soon, I’m confident TowerFall Ascension won’t be leaving my living room anytime soon.

2013 GOTY - Line Break
2013 GOTY - Line Break

Nidhogg

Messhof | January 13, 2014 | PlayStation 4, PS Vita, Windows

If TowerFall Ascension is an accessible and riotously good time for everyone playing, Nidhogg is the opposite: a complex and harrowing game to play, but an absolute blast for spectators.

Nidhogg is a fast, unrelenting, side-scrolling fencing game. You and an opponent duel to the death over and over again as you each try to make your way to one end of an arena while your adversary tries to stop you. Encounters are fast and require technical finesse to master—do you parry, dodge, duck, roll, stab, riposte, pull back, or run the risk of throwing your rapier?—and deaths are gruesome and bloody (although this is an abstract-looking pixel-art game, so it’s not especially unsettling). Once a victor evades their opponent and makes it to their victory point, they receive their reward: a giant dragon-worm-thing swoops in and eats them alive. It’s an adrenaline rush to play against another player, but a losing streak can be exhausting.

Where Nidhogg really shines is at a big party, like the one I went to this year at GDC that was sponsored by Venus Patrol and Wild Rumpus. People lined up to duel, but an even greater crowd gathered around the wall where the game was being projected. The push-and-pull nature of the game was exactly the sort of thing that makes spectator sports fun to watch, and the ability to see two rivals competing intensely in a violent-yet-ridiculous setting is exhilarating. If you’re hosting a game night or a party, consider throwing Nidhogg up on the main screen – chances are it’ll be a hit.

2013 GOTY - Line Break
2013 GOTY - Line Break

Titanfall

Respawn Entertainment | March 11, 2014 | Xbox 360, Xbox One, Windows

Another multiplayer first-person shooter. It probably doesn’t sound significant, especially in a year where genre giant Call of Duty managed to take its first meaningful step forward in a long time. But for my money, Titanfall is the biggest thing to happen in multiplayer shooters since 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – and it’s a ridiculous amount of fun, too.

What makes Titanfall stand out is its incredibly balanced pacing and game flow. You’ll compete in common multiplayer modes like team deathmatch, capture the flag and domination (maintain control of key locations to score points), but each mode is reinvigorated thanks to the asymmetrical nature of combat. You’ll usually start out as a pilot, a capable foot soldier equipped with a suite of enhanced movement abilities including double-jumping, wall-running and clinging to surfaces. Once you’ve racked up enough points and enough time has passed, you’ll be able to call in a titan, which is a massive and powerful walking tank that you climb into and take manual control of.

Respawn did an excellent job at refining the pacing of combat, such that titan drops are always something to look forward to and arrive at just the right frequency to feel welcome without feeling unnecessary. Fortunately, if you decide you’re more of a foot-soldier type, you can always set your titan to run on autopilot.

Titanfall was derided for lacking a traditional single-player campaign. Call me callous, but I’ve played enough single-player first-person shooter campaigns to swear them off altogether at this point (although Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare breathed a little life into the stale concept). Instead, what you get with Titanfall is some of the strongest level design and most-refined combat I’ve ever had the joy of participating in. If you missed it this time around, wait for the inevitable sequel.

2013 GOTY - Line Break
2013 GOTY - Line Break

The Sailor’s Dream

Simogo | November 6, 2014 | iOS

Is The Sailor’s Dream a game? It’s a series of beautiful moments that the player explores at their own pace and discretion, an experience that is more contemplative and meditative that challenging or surprising. Given that it comes from the same studio that made Year Walk and Device 6—both excellent games in their own right—it’s not a big surprise that typical game-design conventions aren’t present here.

But what is here is truly special. The game conjures a powerful sense of place with excellent and responsive audio design, an affecting non-linear narrative told through written vignettes, beautiful scenery and charming songs of the sea. It’s over a little too soon, perhaps, but that only makes what came before so meaningful.

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Mario Kart 8

Nintendo EAD Group No. 1 | May 30, 2014 | Wii U

I was ready to dismiss this game without giving it a fair chance. The last Mario Kart I’d played was the Wii version, which is more or less considered to be the worst in the series. But once the stellar reviews began pouring in—and I’d had a chance to glance at the paltry collection of Wii U games on my shelf—I decided to give it a shot.

Mario Kart 8 is almost effortlessly charming. It’s filled with excellent track designs, a great variety of character, and more kart-customization options than I know what to do with. It’s only getting better thanks to some very reasonably priced downloadable content that brings new tracks inspired by old favorites like Excite Bike, The Legend of Zelda and, my personal favorite, F-Zero's timeless Mute City course.

Mario Kart 8 also continues its proud tradition of being one of the easiest and friendliest games for newcomers to pick up. What’s different this time around is that its accessibility doesn’t come at a cost to the quality of its deep design. Tracks take on a new life and strategies become increasingly crucial as you ramp up to faster engines and tougher circuits, and the game’s online mode is surprisingly engaging thanks to some solid (by Nintendo standards, anyway) netcode and a compelling ranking system. This was the top game in my household throughout the summer, and I’m sure we’ll be racing our way through this game for months to come.

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Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Blizzard Entertainment | March 11, 2014 | Android, iPad, Windows

I never expected to like Hearthstone. I dabbled in Magic: The Gathering and the Pokémon Trading Card Game in middle school, sure, but I never really caught the bug that compels people to compete at malodorous comic shops or spend alarming amounts of money on booster packs.

Along comes Hearthstone, Blizzard’s first foray into the free-to-play model of game design, with a surprisingly compelling value proposition: a shrewd tutorial, a steady stream of new cards and plenty of online and offline content, none of which requires real money.

I spent probably 30 hours on Hearthstone over the course of this year, mostly on my iPad, and I never spent a dime on it. I’m not saying that’s typical, necessarily, and I’m fairly confident that if I ever achieved a high enough level of play it’d almost become necessary for me to start spending money to acquire the specific cards I’d need to master the game. But what I found was the most accessible, fun and engaging collectible card game I’ve ever seen, and all it asked of me was a little patience and some free time. The art style and voice acting may be cringe-worthy, but it doesn’t detract from the rich quality of the design underlying the game. It’s worth checking out if you want to see how free-to-play can be done right.

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Bayonetta 2

Platinum Games | October 24, 2014 | Wii U

In 2010, I reviewed the original Bayonetta. Most of my article focused on addressing the issue of the game’s sexualized content and determining whether I interpreted it as a sexist or misogynist game. It’s a complex question, and many interpretations are undoubtedly valid. Regardless of its content, I felt that the underlying character-action game was unassailable – the best of its kind.

Bayonetta 2 is a smarter, faster, more fluid and engrossing action/fighting game than its predecessor and, for my money, the unrivaled champion of the entire genre. But the same problematic content—the voyeuristic camera angles, the egregious emphasis on butts and boobs, the uncomfortably on-the-nose euphemisms—is even more prevalent in this sequel. As a 23-year-old (jeez, I was young!) critic, I interpreted the original game as ultimately feminist because of the way that our protagonist maintains total autonomy over the scenario and invariably gets the upper hand on the game’s lecherous characters and creepy enemies.

Unfortunately, my interpretation of Bayonetta 2 at this point is that it’s a more problematic game with a muddled message that’s compromised by even more careless use of objectification and hypersexualization. It’s still the best-playing and most-refined character-action game I’ve ever encountered, but it’s a lot harder to recommend – and, for me, to stomach.