Shawn Alexander Allen is an artist, game designer and writer currently doing all of those skills and more for a game called Treachery in Beatdown City. He is also planning sweet revenge for getting smashed in the head with a bottle at the PAX Prime Rumble. You can follow him on Twitter.
2014 has been the longest blur of a year in recent memory. In many ways it has been the busiest and hardest year of my life since leaving my job in “AAA” games for the infinitely scarier, but more fulfilling world of independent game development. In fact much of my year was spent running Kickstarters and having to ignore some pretty big releases like Dark Souls II, TowerFall & Titanfall which all launched the final week of my first failed campaign.
My experiences in 2014 were colored by a growing level of disappointment coming from a struggle to finding a deeper meaning to why I love games, why I think we need more people from marginalized groups making games, and how all of that is related. As such it has made me rethink my motivations for why I enjoy the games I do, and also made me look deeper at cultural context and systems design. It’s why Shadow of Mordor isn’t on my list, and I will probably write an essay about my struggle with the game’s politics while enjoying the (largely balanced but flawed) combat feedback loops.
The following top 10 list is a mix of great experiences I had in 2014 in my own little bubble of an apartment in NYC. Many of these games are made by friends who are talented designers and important voices in the industry. I don’t write about things that I don’t think are worth people’s time so you can take care in knowing I’m not shilling games that aren’t any good. Most of my ranking is also arbitrary except my number one pick.
I also just wanted to give a shoutout to Joylancer, a game that I wanted to put on my list for mechanics alone because they are really, really good. It’s is definitely worth playing and watching grow into the game that will probably be face melting come 2015, where it will undoubtedly be on my list for sure.
10. Shovel Knight
The team at Yacht Club Games sure knows how to make a fine video game. Like a beautifully honed game that feels like an artifact lost in time, Shovel Knight feels like decades of expertise, fandom and adoration for playing and crafting games came together with a dedication to fluidity, charming humor while constantly begging the player to dive deeper into their world without sending the players away aggravated after attempt 32 still manages to end in failure. Now waiting for the co-op Shield Knight expansion that the fan in me hopes will be made one day.
9. Broken Age
Despite my first adventure game experience being on the Apple IIc, I missed out on the golden age of the genre without owning a PC until the early 2000s. As such I am not so much a decades long Tim Schafer fan but rather interested in his continual efforts to create in this incredibly volatile games business space. My favorite Double Fine game is Stacking, for reference. I funded Broken Age before it had hit its goal because I wanted to see Double Fine succeed with bringing back a genre that they and many had a deep admiration for. Sometime later, after a few bumps and missteps, Broken Age is in our hands as a beautifully crafted experience that also just so happens to start a black woman and I enjoyed every moment of it.
8. 1001 Spikes
1001 Spikes is a suffocating deep dive into the mindset of a very particular designer--it feels designed to challenge players to outwit the labyrinthine traps and safety afforded by most game design these days instead of ingenuity. It is unyielding in its approach, but demands, deservedly so, your utmost attention to every aspect of every stage. It can be very frustrating, but I give 1001 Spikes a great deal of respect for its adherence to such principles.
This game is not “new” per say, but it was just released in 2014 for sale by Anna Anthropy in its full, uncensored glory this year--in many ways becoming free of the corporate tyranny that kept 1-pixel nipples off of willing slaves and half arachno-humanoids to boot. I first became acquainted with Ms. Anthropy’s work with Dys4ia, but her game design spans multiple disciplines, and in many ways I feel like Lesbian Spider-Queens from Mars is a better form of expression of her politics as a designer.
I bought the original Binding of Isaac the day it came out. I own two hand made statues of the eponymous hero and his inner, darker, demon self, as well as the European PC boxed release. BoI was an experience I enjoyed all those years ago and as a 2014 release the self proclaimed Rebirth is just as good, especially wrapped up in the new pixel art look that adds some crunch to the smooth vector outlines of old. Rebirth launched around the time I fell into a deep depression, and as such I have put more time into the game than I care to admit, but it really speaks to the design of the game that I can enjoy dozens of hours playing it while staving off crushing depression lurking just outside my consciousness.
The Dreamcast holds a special place in my heart, as does Sega’s arcade heritage of bright colored skies, sharp definition resolution in a time of low definition games and ultra tight game feel. The team at Witchbeam gets that heritage, as many were former Sega of Australia employees. I was given AAC on a business card from a gentleman named Nat, who besides being an excellent hugger also understands the needs of technology to create a game with excellent feel. The nuance of each playable character changes the play space for the better in a way that is almost unfair, as there are many characters to use and I want to play with each of them.
There was a time in not so distant past when every other game was a twin stick shooter, but even during that time, Assault Android Cactus would have been a special release. It’s another game that expresses the reverence for a specific time in gaming where play was about exuberance and excitement.
When I was a young child I was in a piano class and was regarded pretty highly by my teacher. My lessons stopped abruptly when I was declined for a scholarship to continue on, despite my instructor’s pleas on my behalf. He told my mom I shouldn’t stay in remedial music because it was beneath my skills, though I’m not sure leaving music class in general did me any favors.
I fell out of music as a kid, but with the advent of computers I have tried and failed to enjoy creating music with dozens of apps over the years. Sentris encouraged me to dive back in, and working within some framework, yet with the freedom to do what I want, I found the encouragement, the comfort and the bravery to play with music in a way I haven’t felt since all those years ago.
3. Bayonetta 2
While much of the industry was decrying the exclusivity of Bayonetta 2 on the Wii U I was super excited, as this was exactly the game my lonely Wii U had been waiting for. When Platinum cares and is left to their own devices, they don’t disappoint. Metal Gear Rising’s PC Port, in many ways, could have been right next to Bayonetta 2 in this list, but that would be unfair to the other games.
Bayonetta as a game is of course its own source of controversy. Arguments about her sexuality and her portrayal in a game with the camera leading our eyes over her body in the midst of the slaughter of various forms of angel can definitely be problematic, though I look at it in a different more empowering viewpoint--Bayonetta is rock n’ roll grindhouse & is made to be in your face, if you feel uncomfortable, the game is doing its job.
Bayonetta 2 adheres to Platinum's tenets of creating amazing set pieces and combat scenarios, while also sticking to showing action in cutscenes that bog down the overall experience--I hope they can marry the two a little less disparately some day, but it’s still a minor gripe.
There was a time where I viewed media for Always Sometimes Monsters from afar, sneering at the decidedly generic RPG Maker style--I am pretty picky when it comes to visual aesthetics in games, to the point where I refuse to play a good deal based on graphic style alone. I caved one day after reading about the interactions that could be had in the game. One notable review that got me to really consider buying it was a negative review that said there was no good side of things in ASM.
I found that below the seemingly generic glaze of RPG Maker graphics lies a game about life and how it can go awry in so many different ways. Always Sometimes Monsters reminded me of my fears growing up of perhaps being homeless and of my striving in my day to day life as an adult to stay as far away from the harshness of a reality that does not give a fuck about your worthless existence can entail. ASM is painful and, especially for those who may not know the sting of walking the tightrope between chicken broth and sleeping on cement, is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
I grew up absolutely in love with Greek mythology, and Apotheon is the first game that has done it any sort of justice, creating a game with a story told through the timeless black figure painting found on so much Greek pottery. When I first stopped playing I had to continue not long after as I found myself thinking about the world that Apotheon had created. A clever combat system coupled with a vast world that keeps the player engaged with just enough side quests to want to explore every last inch, Apotheon is truly a gem.
At one point I was running from a never ending wave of constantly resurrecting skeletons through a field of darkness with my torch as the only light source. If I equipped my shield I would forfeit my torch, being forced to stand my ground in the darkness. This was suicide, and so I kept on running, not stopping to engage with the souls of the dead who would bite and scratch at me while begging to feel the warmth of my skin.
The ending of the game, many hours later, came with quite a surprising bit of storytelling that felt like only a video game could tell the story in that way, the way many feel about Half-Life. Apotheon was truly my game of the year, and made me wonder why I haven’t felt the same about many games with much bigger budgets in some time.