It’s been a great year. It’s been a busy year. It’s the first year I’ve spent entirely as a full-time indie, and it still doesn’t feel entirely real. It’s been fun to do silly shit like the PAX Rumbles. Fun to meet other indies, writers, backers, and new players. I feel like I’ve arrived into having some kind of presence as a game developer. It’s also been a lot of conferences and speaking. All on top of hard work refining and improving Sentris. Turns out doing all these things doesn’t leave a lot of time left over for playing games.
Here’s a list of ten games that captivated me this year, all of which I wish I could play more. Of course there are some great games I didn’t get to play that I wish I could’ve. Such is the life of a fast-talkin’, asskickin’ indie dev like myself. My precious little time with games has to be meaningful and enjoyable. Every single one of the games on this list struck me in a truly remarkable way, and has left me wishing for more time to put into it.
10. A City Sleeps
I was never deep into the shmup or bullet hell scene. I’ve played and appreciated R-Type, Ikaruga, and DoDonPachi, but never had a deep personal relationship with these kinds of games. When I heard Harmonix was making a musical shmup, I was instantly intrigued.
The game they’ve made stands out. It’s a twin-stick horizontal shooter that oozes style and makes me want to dance while I play. It requires a detailed moment to moment attention and a broader stroke offensive/defensive attention. It’s probably the best musical shooting game I’ve played since Rez. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to try again for that perfect run.
9. 80 Days
This is probably the best novel-to-game adaptation I’ve ever played. It has a rich story, branching paths, lots of decision-making, great character development, and a compelling world to travel through. And I love the way it utterly dedicates itself to its own design. The world and your journey are always in view, even if you’re focusing on a conversation or packing your bags for a trip through the Siberian tundra. Of course the desert of the Middle East is also a compelling option. I love how this game excites the possibilities of the imagination, giving the player just enough to fill in the blanks ourselves like a great novel.
Silent Hills' playable trailer has two major brownie points for me: It’s the only game I’ve played through to completion this year, and it’s the only game that legitimately scared me so much that I needed to turn on the lights. I don’t often go for horror games. I think jump scares are cheap. P.T. has one jump scare built into it, but the scariest parts are scary because they share a key attribute with The Ring--a constant presence of discomfort. It evokes the possibility of evil and horror in a way that lets my imagination fill in the blanks, making me scared to actually step forward to see what’s going to happen next. And the progression is designed with such richness I was never disappointed when the game’s reality of horror finally revealed itself. I’m sincerely hoping the new Silent Hill holds up to the standard set here. But P.T. works so well on its own, Silent Hills might just be reduced to "icing on the cake" status.
This is a remake of the original Shadowgate, which you might have played on NES. As a kid, I played it on my family’s Macintosh Plus. The original was formative for me in my love of adventure games, opening the gateway to Déjà Vu, Loom, and Monkey Island.
The remake accomplishes everything I could hope for. It presents itself with beautiful art that evokes and respects the source material. It maintains the style and spirit of the old puzzles while redesigning them so as to be thought-provoking to all players. It builds a simple scaffolding of story to enrich the fiction of the world. It offers separate difficulty settings to help new players get into this style of adventure game. Of course, the real way to play it is on the hardest difficulty where you could be killed at any moment, from any innocent decision.
It’s a great remake of an excellent if lesser-known game from our medium’s history. If you play, remember that swords are worthless but the slingshot is top-tier. And with the lights out, it might just scare the crap out of you.
6. Korg DSN-12
The collusion of music creation and video games continues! And holy shit, this synthesizer is amazing. Twelve synth voices. 64 step sequences. 64 pattern banks. One hot instrument. Is it a game? Who cares?! It’s a fucking awesome gateway drug into the world of programmable synthesizers. This is a superior version of the older Korg DS-10, which I once used as my instrument in a band. Before that I knew nothing about synthesizers, so I can confirm that this is a great way to practice making music. I’m unbelievably excited to lay down some tracks with this puppy. Now where did I put my distortion pedal?
Nidhogg and I got off on the right foot. I first played it in 2011, at a demo station equipped with two NES controllers. I have a special fondness for games that are playable with one d-pad and two buttons. I also have a soft spot for NES controllers because I never owned an NES myself. So, I was pretty instantly hooked. More than that I was delighted by the depth of strategies blended with its fast-paced, reflexive nature. It’s a perfectly designed, simple fighting game, and executed beautifully. Long matches of Nidhogg are some of the most stressful, exciting versus matches I’ve played this year or ever. If you share a competitive streak with even a single friend, this game is very much worth your attention.
Sometimes I sing a little song to myself while playing Shadow of Mordor. The lyrics go something like “hunt the orcs, stalk the orcs, stab and slice and cut the orcs”. It’s a good song, but it’s not nearly as good as the game. Never before have I been so personally offended by the audacity of an NPC to (luckily) get one over on me, and gloat about it. My revenge is swift and painful and gratifying. There’s some kind of plot going on too I guess, but really I just want to get back to killing gangs of motherfucking orcs.
3. Road Not Taken
I’ve never had a soft spot for poetry, but I do have a growing affection for roguelikes. This one is one of the most devilish and difficult I’ve played, operating one level deeper than the “can I safely kill these enemies?” nature of most roguelikes. It keeps you thinking; one, two, three moves ahead. The constant attention required to balance the need to plan the optimal sequence of moves with the need to improvise and discover secrets is compelling and rewarding. Wrap it all around a narrative that feels light and fluffy at first, but becomes incredibly dark with any kind of contemplation, and you have a great mind-bending and dramatic puzzle game.
2. Sunset Overdrive
I don’t always play games about shooting things. But when I do, I shoot things while racing all over a damn city firing guns that announce their destructive capabilities with a colorful sense of style. The humor may be cheesy and the progression may be a tad slow, but Sunset Overdrive is full of what I loved about Jet Set Radio and Halo. Playing well requires constantly thinking about three or four things at once. Clearing a horde of enemies around you brings a physical relief sensation that’s incredibly enjoyable. And then you can flip out, flying through the air, completely across the city to do it all over again. Plus any game that features a shit-talking blimp that fires laser beams from its eyes gets an A-OK in my book.
1. Fract OSC
A few years ago I had this idea to make a game about existing in a world of music, bringing it to life as you play. I can’t make that game anymore because FRACT realizes the concept better than I could. The descriptors of this game don’t do it justice yes you are exploring a vast world, yes you are solving puzzles. But it’s more than that. It’s an open but guided musical creation experience. It’s beautiful and mysterious and captivating. It doesn’t expect you to pick up on its abundant subtlety of aural delights, but if you listen a little more closely you’ll discover the game is constantly talking, listening, and responding to you. It’s an incredibly special and unique experience that I think shouldn’t be missed.