Scott Benson is an animator, illustrator, and game developer. He co-founded Late Night Work Club, an indie animation anthology. Now he's working on Night in the Woods, a game about friendship, home, and the inevitable end, plus animal people. He also tweets at an alarming rate. Find him at @bombsfall.
Hey Giant Bomb! You guys are cool! Let's talk about games we loved this year! High fives!
We're in a great time where you can go to games for all kinds of experiences and reasons. Uniformities are breaking down and it's marvelous. There are some pretty huge growing pains in both the industry and the players, but it's getting so much more interesting. This was a year where that really stood out to me. I went to games to laugh, to explore, to build, and sometimes just to feel some peace in what was a pretty rough time for the place I live and the gaming community in which many of my friends and I work and dwell. Games themselves are fucking rad, and they're getting fucking radder. 2014 was often a fight, and these games reminded me that the bright future of this medium is worth fighting for.
Here are my faves of the year. None of these games are perfect but perfection is boring anyway. I'm also going to cheat and put two from previous years on my list. I'm a maverick!
Community vs hardship. No orcs, no zombies, just cold and disease and starvation. There's something really primal and resonant about that. Banished drops you in some remote regular-ass non-magical northern region of earth and says “build shit and survive”. As you expand from your initial communal housing into markets and neighborhoods and taverns and blacksmiths, what becomes important is careful planning of traffic--foot traffic in this case. You end up thinking about each resident's route to and from their job, each working hauling resources, walking along the roads and bridges you're building. It's both grounded in its setting and ground-level in its focus on mundane struggles--warmth, food and housing, things a lot of us have worries about. It could use some expanding and your citizens are not much brighter than the livestock, but it's a great way to spend a few evenings.
My first time playing I lasted 90 minutes. I found a fishing pole and some tinder, and made a fire. I crossed a lake and found some mushrooms. I realized I had a map. There was no marker on it. I thought maybe I could recognize the shape of the lake I'd crossed, and I saw some weird-looking shapes to the northwest. I ended up in a swamp where I ran into a bear who punched me right in the goddamn face. I ate some berries that made me sick. I was so cold. Eventually I found some more tinder by a river, so I had fire and fish. Unfortunately, I was so injured that I kept puking up everything I ate and had to sleep pretty much constantly. I made it out of the swamp and into a field, where I died.
My second playthrough ended after 10 hours or so. I figured out my bearings and walked to the coast. I found notes left behind in the distant past. I found the ruins of Olympia. I followed lights in the dark. I finally left off was a good spot: in the middle of the night, watching the wolves wander through a massive steel structure backlit by the green glow of whatever that was.
Once you figure it out, survival in Eidolon becomes background maintenance. The real game is walking for miles and miles. Finding the old high tension towers and following them. Walking. Until you've seen enough.
This game is so lovingly crafted. It's an old-school adventure where your party of four very well-coordinated heroes roll in tandem, one square at a time, through a staggering variety of environments given that the first Grimrock game was strictly a dark tunnels affair. It's a dungeon crawler that's not afraid of sunny meadows and blue skies to go along with the horror. It feels like some sort of very stabby adventure park. I really liked the first Grimrock, and this new one is so glad to have you back and it shows. Long live Grimrock. Grimrock good.
I didn't finish Alien: Isolation. It was sooo long and after a while you've seen what it's got to offer. It's a clear descendant of Frictional's extensive work in the Very Killable Protagonist Vs Crushing Invincible Dread genre and if you've played that, you have an idea of the core draw of the game. But while it's not that deep a bag of tricks, those tricks are still pretty incredible. I have never been particularly scared of anything in game before, but that first encounter with the alien was a straight-up traumatic experience. I started laughing at myself when I realized I had been holding my breath since I saw it disappear down the hall. This game made me need cathartic laughter. I had a think about this for a few seconds, and then I got tail-murdered. The damn thing had gotten behind me somehow. And then I was back 5 minutes at the manual save and, well... the great trick of Alien Isolation is that it, for a while at least, makes you feel like there is something dangerous near you. Something actively looking for you.
When's the last time something in a video game seemed like it was thinking? After a while this feeling wears off but, for a few amazing hours, Alien Isolation pulled off the best trick of the year.
I was hired to put together a trailer for Hohokum last year, and after seeing the little bits of art and animation I was given to work with I was so excited to get into this game's world. Hohokum is all about the thrill of movement, exploration, and poking at things. That's really it. You fly around beautiful areas, try stuff, and see what happens. And it's great and funny and full of charm. Several friends of mine had a pretty brutal back half of this year at the hands of the worst parts of video game culture, and it was (and to some extent still is) a rough and sad and rage-inducing time to be anywhere near videogames. Hohokum was a godsend. It reminded me of why I love this medium, and the amazing people who work in it. You can feel the people who worked on Hohokum when you play it, and that connection is something I really value. This is a game that seems happy to see you. I sure was happy to see it.
You are some dipshit in Brooklyn with a stupid Kickstarter. Your world is so small, so tame, so ordered. You have no conception of the trash mammal kingdom... yet.
Brooklyn Trash King is a delight. I laughed so hard, and then sent it to friends who also laughed so hard. Everyone was laughing so hard. It has the feel of listening to someone (@torahhorse, specifically) tell a story and then realizing halfway through that they're making it up as they go along, but you just want to ride it out to see where this could possibly be going. This is one of the first Twine games I've played that gives me that vibe, that participatory “yeah? and then?”-ness that the platform can provide. It's cool that games can do that. You're making choices, sure, but mostly you're wondering “why the fuck why am I tying rotten meat to myself and where did all these raccoons come from?”
I had two strong gaming loves as a kid- my NES and my Choose Your Own Adventure books, which are games by any metric even if you're pretty damn formalist in your definition. The Yawhg is a choose your own adventure game. It has gorgeous art by Emily Carrol and has lovely music and fun choices and outcomes. I want to see more of this--collabs between great artists/musicians from outside games and game devs. The Yawhg is a tiny little handcrafted gift of a thing, and you don't always get that feeling with games. It's best played with a couple friends. It won't take long. Give it a go.
The most fun I had with a game this year was my wife and I livetweeting our playthrough of Long Live The Queen. This is a visual novel rpg thing where you're a kid who is trying to make it to 15 so she can be crowned queen. You make endless decisions, not just about what you do each day, but about affairs of state and various happenings as well as what points you put into a staggering variety of stats. “What the hell will we need falconry for?” The fun part is that under the cutesy anime dress-up surface LLtQ is a pitch-black unforgiving death trap. You will die, horribly. The game's focus on statecraft and big consequences for minor decisions is what makes it so much fun. I really recommend playing this with a friend and in a state where you are ready to bust out laughing when your army is fucked and you've been mauled to death by a dog because you forgot to put that last point into Dog Friendship or whatever. That's how they get you.
I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder last year. I was having panic attacks for months, something that was pretty new to me. It was like having my brain and body react like I was being chased by a shark through dark water when I was in fact sitting at my desk, which is not in water and therefore inaccessible to sharks. Things have calmed down now, but it's something I have to watch out for.
On nights when I can't sleep, when I'm all full of anxiety, when everything is awful, I've been known to put on headphones and play through Proteus. It's about an island and the things that live there and what happens to them over the course of the year. The island and music are procedural, which leads to these unexpected moments where the sound and foliage and animals link up in beautiful ways, and you just stand there taking it all in. It simply asks you to BE somewhere, and be engaged. You get to know the island and the things that live there, how you react to one another. You get to know the music that comes off trees and grass. That sounds weird but it's not that much different than any other environmental reaction in a game. Throughout Proteus you see the rise and fall of life on the island through the seasons. Things grow, flourish, then winter comes. But there's still life, even then. This is just time. This is just life. And that's OK. And things are going to be OK.
And I sleep like a baby. Proteus fucking heals me. Games can do that. That's pretty cool.
Kentucky Route Zero, Act 3 (+ Here and There Along the Echo)
(minor spoilers below)
Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic adventure game where you mostly click around the screen and it's the most exciting thing happening in games right now and I freak out when a new installment pops up.
The combo of its newest proper episode and it's newest free supplemental game demonstrates why it is so special. KRZ is this magical realist trip through the America that's off the interstates-- the flyover country, the places where the company that employed half the county pulled up stakes and left ruins and debt and weird places that made sense once. It's dry and dark but never cynical, never above the people it's about. It has legit love for its relatable characters and bizarre but familiar spaces. And god, those spaces.
It's also endlessly experimental. Cardboard Computer put out these little things between episodes that are so cool, so interested in poking at the things that make up games. They are also free. In the most recent one, Here and There Along the Echo, branching narratives and player choice comes from a phone menu system that you can call on your actual phone. Not that much difference really between Press 1 To Hear This and Press X To Blow Up Megaton.
KRZ fucks with you that way. But it's so accessible and inviting. It's funny. It's not trying to show you how smart or avant-garde it is or anything. It wants you to be surprised and intrigued and amused. It strips things down to the bare parts, but it's also generous in how much it gives you if you spend a while with it.
KRZ act 3 is the best episode of this game so far and that's saying something. There's a scene early on in that game that will be on many peoples Top Games Moments of 2014--a song performed in a dive bar in the middle of nowhere, where you are both audience and performer. It's a beautiful sequence, the second best moment in any game I played this year.
The best moment was this: later in the game a mining robot named Junebug who travels and plays in a band with another robot named Johnny is standing in a graveyard, talking to a child about her past:
“Johnny found some gear--an old tape player. We hid away in an underwater cave and listened to it over and over, and we knew we weren't miners... We slipped out onto the road, just these two featureless shadows, and ever since that night we've been detailing. Coloring in. Specifying. I feel more like myself every day.”
I think my love of games like this and many others on my list comes down to moments. That was a moment that meant something, and I participated in it. Games are pretty cool.