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Cara Ellison's Top 10 Games of 2014

Cara Ellison spent 2014 traveling the globe, yet somehow she still found a way to play enough games to make a proper top 10 list.

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Cara Ellison is video game journalism's favorite vagabond. You should absolutely check out her ongoing Embed With Games series, and her semi-regular S.EXE column for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. You should also follow her continuing adventures in international couch-hopping via her Twitter account.

Dearest Giant Bomb, this year I had a lot of trouble staying near a console because one would just not fit in a backpack on my travels around the world writing about game developers. Lucky for me I dual boot a Macbook and sneak conjugal visits with game developers’ consoles on the regular. So you’ll forgive me if my list is a little esoteric this year: I managed to play even fewer games outside my regular Rock Paper Shotgun remit than usual. I have this column called S.EXE over at RPS you see--it’s about sex and relationship themes in games--and the deadline for it limits my scope in what I get to play. But there was plenty interesting stuff in my year. In no particular order, for your delectation:

10. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

I guess this one snuck out of nowhere and kicked me in the shins because, I confess (and so many people I love will not speak to me for weeks about this) I just don’t really get on with Tolkien or his worlds. It all started when I realised lore was making my life miserable. Blah blah blah deposing the Inquisitor this and blah blah blah vestigial brides of the Eye of Sauron that and ooh an essay on blades of grass on hills and Tom Bombadil has a flower I COULD GO ON BUT I WON’T ELVEN POETRY ELVEN POETRY.

But god, the glory of Shadow of Mordor. The thick hot mess as orc heads slice off, the feeling of bodies, the fast gleam and frictive HNGH into flesh and the black night and hours and hours of standing in dirt strafing the enemy, finding weaknesses, looking at parts and fielding seductive taunts from testosteroney baritones… It’s the first game to really explore male intimacy, male bodies next to other bodies and how to negotiate them. It’s earthy. It’s the Top Gun locker room. It’s aggression as romance, an orc dating sim. To wait as the nemesis systems reshuffles itself to decide who will come to top and tail you and grab you by the scruff of the neck and--

Someone walks in on you and you’re sitting in someone’s living room homeless with sweat running down your back and you look at yourself and you think, "Fuck. What am I doing? Is life hollow? Oh god I need a shower. Did they see my orc face?" And you run out of the room.

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9. Kanye Zone

Every year I want video games to fully embrace the power of pop music and incorporate it into game mechanics with the purity and vision of something like Guitar Hero but with a regular controller and a Godhand brawling sensibility. Until we get my Samurai Champloo-inspired linear narrative brawler to an expansive classic hip hop soundtrack type game, let us make do with Kanye Zone, an ingenious game made by a mysterious duo at Otter Spice, which is a company that sounds like a piss take and probably is.

Kanye Zone is a simple browser game made from the Kanye track "N***** in Paris", one of the gutsiest, most experimental tracks Kanye’s done, and samples from it to formulate its game mechanics. The famous refrain is Kanye’s "don’t let me get in my zone, don’t let me get in my zone" with Jay-Z finally joining in to say triumphantly, "I’M DEFINITELY IN MY ZONE".

Well, this game is about preventing Kanye from getting in his zone. If you fail to prevent him from getting in his zone, that annoying bastard that takes up all Beyonce’s recording time pops up and tells you that he is in the zone.

I can play this game for hours because the refrain is one of our culture’s absolute finest, and once you train yourself to prevent Kanye from getting in the zone it’s almost a disappointment to hear the actual song fail so miserably at preventing him from rezoning.

When you restart the game, it yells “SHUBOI” at you and my god that is game design at its finest. More game mechanics straight from pop, please.

8. Coming Out On Top

Coming Out On Top is a gay dude dating sim. But even if you are not into looking at naked dudes, there is no denying that this game is one of the best written games I have ever played. It’s almost Joss Whedonesque in its glib, sharp humour, it’s got a crackle of tension, and the characters are so human and interesting in a way that video games find hard to bestow. This game gave me the full emotional workout, stretching emotional muscles in me that games never ever do. I felt awkward in many situations, I felt shy, sometimes I felt longing or even… turned on.

This game is the Citizen Kane of ripped, naked big-dicked dudes in love. It’s the fucking Citizen Kane of fucking.

7. A Dark Room

You should all take the time to play through A Dark Room once. It’s free on browsers but it’s much much better played on mobile.

A Dark Room has a minimal interface, just little black and white buttons with some status bars and numbers. It’s essentially a little RTS but done with zero graphics. You build a community and mine and gather resources and all that, and it takes a long time to complete and fight to get enough resources--but that’s not why you’d play it.

A Dark Room does with a few sentences of flavour text what whole art teams sometimes fail to do: they provide a deep and mysterious atmosphere of foreboding, a hint of hardship or secrecy, a feeling of intimacy with the silhouettes of figures that come in and out of your encampment. They lead to a bigger narrative, painfully, deftly. It begins with the wonderful "light fire" button, and everything folds out from there like origami. A Dark Room is a robust example of how to tell just enough story through concise and interesting text.

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6. Jazzpunk

“It was somewhere around the time we were having a microtrip through technicolour tunnels that made us levitate that my friend said, "WE SHOULDN'T HAVE EATEN THAT PIG." My character bouncing around off fluorescent triangles, mangling my hand on WASD, I said "I'M GETTING NAUSEOUS," and she pointed to some microchips on a floor made of formulae and greek symbols and I put the chips in the computer's head. The next sick-making tunnel opened before me.

We were a long way from the twee game we thought we were playing. We'd scanned the barcode printed on the pig-on-wheels into her phone, her real-life phone, before our character ate it, and it gave us a message that suggested that Agent Polyblank shouldn't eat the electric pig. So, we made Polyblank eat the electric pig. A hole opened in the grass verge and we descended into the darkly comedic belly of Jazzpunk.”

Well I don’t remember reviewing Jazzpunk but that might be because it’s like a sort of weird trip.

5. Queers in Love at the End of the World

Queers In Love At The End Of The World was a 2013 text game, but it got me through this year of travelling by articulating how short I know time to be now. I somehow found myself writing a damn poem about it. You don’t have to read it, but it would mean a lot to me if you did.

4. Creatures Such as We

Lynnea Glasser’s Creatures Such As We came second in this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition, and is a choose your own adventure that is self-consciously many things. It’s an elegant metacommentary on player investment games, for one thing. The main character plays through a video game whilst having the option to romance the game developers who made the game they are playing. The player can choose to interrogate the developers on their choices, and you can rail at them for their decisions. Above all, it’s a nice interrogation into what we want from games and why. It asks, what do we think art is? And what do we want from it? It’s thoughtful, interesting, and well-written, with a good deal of replayability. Substantial stuff.

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3. Cooking for Lovers

Every year I play an Increpare game and get upset about it. I don’t really know how he does it: Stephen just pumps out these free little vignette games that illustrate one small thing about life in some really… profound way.

I played the first person vignette Cooking For Lovers on a rainy afternoon in Tokyo, and it felt hard to be alone. I was living on my friend Jon’s couch, and at that moment he was out.

It’s just a little game about making a pot noodle. All you do is make a pot noodle. It takes maybe five minutes.

Perhaps it’s the gentle bland greyscale of the kitchen, or perhaps it’s the quiet, or perhaps it’s the dreamy slidiness of your weightless body on the kitchen floor. Perhaps it's that you can't see your own body, that you're invisible. But it made me very upset that I was alone, completing kitchen tasks. It is a game about loneliness. The title of the game, Cooking For Lovers, made me think that the game designer was upset to be alone too.

I don’t know if Increpare feels that way. I don’t know if he just wanted me to feel that way because he’s some sort of sadist (perhaps all game designers are in some way). I don’t know if I completely misinterpreted it. But I felt very close to him, right then. I feel like I know why he called it Cooking For Lovers.

And even if he didn’t mean for me to feel that way about his game, I did and I value it. And he made it and gave it to me for free.

2. Kentucky Route Zero (Act III)

Act III of Kentucky Route Zero came out this year. KRZ is so pregnant with meaning, so all-encompassingly beautiful, so much a space in which to exist and think, to explore and wander, to be and know, that it is difficult for me even now to write about it. It is like trying to tell someone how much you love them, talking about this game. It is like trying to reach a horizon. The third act of this game includes a part that can be spoiled, but I can tell you that it involves a piece of music, and it’s been the most heartstopping moment of the game so far. I can’t wait to see more of it.

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1. Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation is a grand, flawed and magnificent beauty of a precise and calculated kind. The stealth genre really needed this game, and although the environments almost oustrip the Alien, I loved the little ways in which you can feel the tension between you and your enemy. It’s terrifying in parts, and the set pieces really work your nerves out.

There’s also that it gives a new perspective on the film Alien: many critics speculated that the film was about the male fear of rape and pregnancy (see: chestburster scene). If that’s so, placing the player explicitly in a female body in this game threatens to displace this narrative in favour of stating that it is not a male fear but a female fear--Ripley’s, and any "penetration" or "violation" of her body is something the player is experiencing. The first person view can be very powerful for perspective, and I think it’s really interesting switch in horror perspectives. Games like Thief, for example, have been experimenting with vulnerability in games like this for a while, and A:I is a welcome addition to this tradition.

And god, that beautiful soundtrack.

Now, everyone be excellent to each other. And play Nidhogg, you jerks.

Okay, bye!


150 Comments

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hassun

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Edited By hassun

Globetrotting video games person Cara Ellison!

Your writing is tremendous as usual and I do love that Kanye pick.

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conmulligan

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Edited By conmulligan

What a weird, awesome list.

Has Cara written about Shadow of Mordor or Alien Isolation anywhere else? There's some interesting ideas here about the subtext of those games that would be cool to see fleshed out.

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AMyggen

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Cara!

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ADAMWD

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I don't get all the love for Alien Isolation. The Evil Within is the better atmospheric horror game by a country mile. It's one of the best games to come out in years and everyone should play it, horror fan or not.

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pause422

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The Evil Within is a joke compared to Alien Isolation and most people agree with that. It's fine that you don't feel that way, but your opinion is way more in the minority than vice versa there.

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Zojirushi

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@adamwd: Your post is in my Top Ten insane statements by probably insane people of 2014.

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Milkman

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Edited By Milkman

I'm gonna leave a comment on every list that includes either The Banner Saga and/or Kentucky Route Zero. And Cara is right, "that moment" in Kentucky Route Zero is absolutely one of the best experiences I had with a game all year.

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cb1115

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Edited By cb1115
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baka_shinji17

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HAI! Cara is the bomb!

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tinodz

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Edited By tinodz
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timeshero

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I still think she needs to be a full-time addition to the Giant Bomb team, and this list proves it.

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slimepuppy

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Edited By slimepuppy

This game is the Citizen Kane of ripped, naked big-dicked dudes in love.

And with that single sentence, my favourite top 10 list of this year was decided.

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UlquioKani

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How did I miss that Kanye game, that is incredible!

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s-a-n-JR

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I really need to play Kentucky Route Zero.

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Entreri10

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I still think she needs to be a full-time addition to the Giant Bomb team, and this list proves it.

Agreed... Great list Cara!!

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Jeffmoocow

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Very cool to see Coming Out On Top mentioned here.

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Kerafyrm

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Edited By Kerafyrm

Alien Isolation was nothing more than running to doors and pressing switches... bored me to tears because they did nothing for the gameplay. On top of that the story sucked, the character models were the worst, the animations were so bad and it was buggy as hell.

It was a great idea for a 2 hour game, but they decided to thin out the content and drag it on for 20 hours. The most fun I had was just walking in the ship at the very start, after that it just fell apart.

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Oni

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Edited By Oni

I don't even know most of these games and I enjoyed what Cara wrote about them. I'll endeavor to check some of them out.

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Joe423

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Keep doing what you do Cara! It's always a pleasure to read.

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a_randay92

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Edited By a_randay92

Looks like I need to check a majority of these games out since this is my first time hearing about most of them.

Oh, and a Samurai Champloo inspired brawler would be fucking brilliant!

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Electric_Zen

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Great job, Cara.

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Wagrid

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This list is rad and so is Cara.

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Jonny_Anonymous

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This game is the Citizen Kane of ripped, naked big-dicked dudes in love.

And with that single sentence, my favourite top 10 list of this year was decided.

Best sentence of the year!

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Y2Ken

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I fucking love reading anything Cara writes. She has such a wonderfully compelling style. More Cara Ellison, please, in any format she cares to make an appearance! (Also glad to see the second appearance of Jazzpunk so far on guest lists.)

"The fucking Citizen Kane of fucking."

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ArbitraryWater

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This might just be my favorite top 10 list thus far!

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Quicklyer

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Yes! KR0 Act 3 is transcendent. KR0 might be Frog Fractions.

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IndridCipher

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As soon as I get home I'm playing this Kanye game. That sounds awesome

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AlmostSwedish

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I love lists with games I've never heard of. I'm buying that Coming Out on Top as we speak.

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Hayt

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Didnt A Dark Room come out in 2013?

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Sparuscus

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God, Cara's writing is so fucking good. Great list.

AND HOW DID A GAME ABOUT KANYE COME OUT AND I DIDN'T HEAR ABOUT IT AHHH

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zombie2011

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As soon as I get home I'm playing this Kanye game. That sounds awesome

I just played it, it's bad. Pretty much like one player warlords, controlling a bumper to hit way an object.

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SuperSonic1305

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@timeshero: Giant Bomb. You're one stop shop for gay dating sims reviews.

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Edited By ADAMWD

@pause422: there's no way you could call Evil Within a joke unless you have never played it. They are very different games mechanically speaking. Alien you have to play stealthily and has a pretty slow and plodding pace. The game drags and drags and drags and simply isn't fun to play. It looks good and has a great mood but that's all it has going for it. Evil Within at least gives the player the option of either engaging and killing enemies or stealthing your way around them.

The Evil Within has an interesting enough premise and story to keep you invested in that regard. Meanwhile the combat is incredibly visceral, challenging, and supremely satisfying. If you aren't getting head shots and maximizing your use of the Agony Crossbow then I could see someone not getting the combat. The environmental trap system is awesome to tinker around with as well and totally a viable means of offense.

In addition the game has some really creatively designed locations that are completely psychedelic due to the nature of the game. The down time outside of combat where you are quietly taking in the world is trippy in the coolest ways. The way the world mutates around you and how quickly reality shifts is just so fucking cool. The game is absolutely brimming with novel design and has a unique sense of style. Not to mention the replayability of the game and hidden secrets. Literally the only bad thing about the game is the boss battles and sequence where waves of enemies rush you, but those are few and far between.

I could go on all day about specific things that are great about the game, but I've already ranted too long. It is my favorite Shinji Mikami game for sure, and I stand by that everyone should at least try it. It's a truly gripping experience.

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Fonzinator

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Edited By Fonzinator

@pause422 said:

The Evil Within is a joke compared to Alien Isolation and most people agree with that. It's fine that you don't feel that way, but your opinion is way more in the minority than vice versa there.

I didn't play Evil WIthin (I tried but something just felt off about it so I just didn't bother to continue) or Isolation, but I very much disagree with your claim. My anecdotal evidence seems to have them in similar stature. Based on metacritic (I know, I know) they sit at 75-79 for EW and 80-81 for Isolation... hardly a joke of a comparison.

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OGJackWagon69

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Edited By OGJackWagon69

"9. Kanye Zone"

Yeezy Season in this list

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jiggajoe14

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Edited By jiggajoe14

Fantastically written list!

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rmanthorp

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rmanthorp  Moderator

Hashtag Hire Cara

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CreggSchinkel

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Edited By CreggSchinkel

Why number 5? It's not a game, and it's not even from 2013. That's goddamn ridiculous.

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anbilow

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Yay, Cara! <3

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Crono

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I'll join the chorus. You listed games! Good job!

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Jace

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Random45

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@kerafyrm said:

Alien Isolation was nothing more than running to doors and pressing switching... bored me to tears because they did nothing for the gameplay. On top of that the story sucked, the character models were the worst, the animations were so bad and it was buggy as hell.

It was a great idea for a 2 hour game, but they decided to thin out the content and drag it on for 20 hours. The most fun I had was just walking in the ship at the very start, after that it just fell apart.

I completely disagree, except for the last fake-out non-ending, where it adds another hour of nothing except for filler, I thought the game was very fun. Yeah, the story was pretty weak, and yeah the models and animations weren't the greatest, but the game play was so damn good. The game is definitely weaker at the start, but once you get the flamethrower, it's so much better. Plus, as weak as the story was, it kept my interests, especially since it was so damn easy to get immerse into the world with the excellent sound and level designs.

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Naoiko

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Kayne Zone? I didn't even know that existed but now I'm curious. Nice list =D Happy New Year and safe travels!

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altairre

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You're awesome Cara! Great fun reading this list.

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indieslaw

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This is a cool ass list.

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benfoldsone

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Coming Out On Top was one of the my favorite games of 2014 for... different reasons that are on this list, shall we say.

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MrMazz

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Yay Cara Ellison

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eladren

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..Oh Cara, but i want you to go on, and talk about elven poetry and bombadil's fashion style with the yellow shoes and the wide blue hat and his penchant for singing in inapropiate times