Tuesday, December 30, 2014

THE BEST OF 2014 - The Best GAMES Of The Year


- Man, what a strange year it's been for videogames. It's hard to encapsulate, but I'll try. The videogame industry collapsed under its own weight in 2014. Gaming broke. The good news is: that may ultimately prove a good thing, because now, finally, we can move forward.

The storm has, perhaps, been brewing for a while - but many couldn't see it coming. On one hand, gaming has, for several years now, been moving in a positive direction. As geek culture in general expanded and diversified, so too did the audience for games. With the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, millions of people had an easy, ever-present way to discover or rediscover games. But it wasn't just the casual games that brought in a more diverse audience. More and more female gamers counted themselves as hardcore gamers in 2014. And I don't say that to mean that they preferred a certain genre, or console, or franchise. I simply mean that gaming culture - long a boys-only club - was increasingly filled with genuinely-interested girls and women this year. Not that they hadn't been there before - but this year, it felt more normalized. It didn't feel strange or surprising anymore to meet a girl who dug gaming. The fact is, gaming culture is fun. People who dig gaming tend to be, for the most part, smart, open-minded, cool, creative, and funny. And more and more, gaming culture felt like a place where all were welcome. Some of the women who embraced games had always been there - perhaps just not so open in their love of the medium. Some were newbies. For me though, the thing that sort of paints a picture of gaming, at its best, in 2014 is the Indoor Kids podcast. Hosted by the husband-and-wife team of comedians Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, this to me is the new generational reality, the new ideal: two smart, funny people - male and female - who play games together and share a love for the medium and culture of gaming. As this became the new paradigm, coverage of gaming also evolved. Growing up, the predominant coverage of videogames was from publications aimed at young boys - the Game Pro's and Nintendo Powers of the world. Now, you've got smart sites like Kotaku that mix traditional reviews and previews with all manner of interesting think-pieces about games and gaming culture. Writers are male and female. Coverage includes mainstream games, indie games, and everything in between. For the enlightened - the people who grew up with games being talked about in a certain (juvenile) way, but who were now ready for a more sophisticated conversation, gaming, of late, seemed to be in a really good place. At least from a cultural perspective, gaming seemed like this almost utopian sort of thing - a subculture filled with really smart and cool people doing innovative and creative things.

So what happened?

In parallel to this, there was a counter-movement going on. A movement that spanned across a spectrum that was on one end mostly harmless, on the other end pretty legitimately scary. The thing is, games had indeed grown to appeal to a more diverse audience over the last several years. But with the good comes the bad, and part of the bad was an influx of bro-culture into gaming. This was the segment of gaming that was less Indoor Kids and more virtual militia. These gamers latched on to the Call of Duties of the world and made them into huge sellers. In turn, they made the budding world of online gameplay a world rampant with misogyny and juvenile behavior. A place that seemed to represent the worst of gaming. We saw a subset of games that increasingly catered to this demo. And somehow, this demo claimed the term "gamer." To the public at large, "gamers" were black T-shirt-wearing thugs who lived to frag virtual opponents on their XBOX. I'm not saying that all fans of online shooters fall into this group. Not at all. And certainly, there are plenty of gamers whose tastes span all categories.I'm just saying that a certain segment of gaming was actually becoming *less* evolved, a place where casual misogyny was the norm. I'm saying that while all this positive stuff was going on, and gaming was changing for the better, there was, in turn, something ugly festering.

That something ugly was GamerGate. I won't go into the whole history of GamerGate. I'll just say that what started as attacks against two prominent female members of the gaming community - one a cultural critic, one a developer - spawned a "movement" that claimed to be about legitimate things like "ethics in journalism," but in fact became an excuse for the worst subculture of so-called gamers to lash out against women and women in games. Prominent people - almost all women - who spoke out against GamerGate fell victim to threats of violence and very real incidents of cyber-bullying. Anita Sarkeesian, the cultural critic whose video series "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" triggered an onslaught of threats and online abuse, became GamerGate's public enemy #1. And why? Because she dared to critique the role of female characters in videogames, and call for more thoughtful representation of women in games. Here's the thing: I don't necessarily agree with every point Sarkeesian makes in her videos, but I'm 100% cool with her making these arguments. More than cool - it's about damn time that someone talked about games in this way - the same way that cultural critics talk about books, movies, and TV. Games have been around long enough, and their narratives are now sophisticated enough, that they've earned the right to be taken seriously as culture and art. And yet the "gamers" of GamerGate don't really even want to engage in these conversations. Instead, they continually fell back on personal attacks. Their whole purpose seemed to be more about trying to discredit women in the gaming community - and in turn forcing them out - than it was about anything else. The whole GamerGate thing also came in a year when we as a country were reeling from multiple incidents of real-world violence, in which the perpetrators subscribed to versions of the "men's rights" ethos. These killers read stuff on various dark corners of the internet that fostered and encouraged their belief that feminism was a nefarious movement meant to stomp all over men, a movement conspiring to ruin everything men liked while denying them everything they wanted. Dangerous stuff, and it's a way of thinking that encourages a toxic mindset - a mindset that men are human, women are inhuman. It all reflects the internet's dangerous ability to serve as an echo chamber. All of these troubled young men found their festering, misogynistic views confirmed by like-minded individuals, and the collective voice grew stronger. The worst manifestation of this voice is in mass-killings. But further down the spectrum, you've got the GamerGaters who became brainwashed into thinking they were fighting a good fight, when they were in fact spouting nonsense. And a finger of shame to prominent people - like actor Adam Baldwin - who encouraged these people via Twitter and other social media. Wrong side of history, dudes.

Luckily, the blight that was GamerGate seems mostly to have subsided as we head into the new year. And videogaming again, mostly, seems awesome. The one positive to have come out of this whole thing is that I think people were genuinely surprised to see how much of a nerve GamerGate touched. Men, women, all kinds of people came out of the woodwork to proclaim their love for games, and their revulsion that this harmful element was trying to lay claim to the "gamer" label. Average joes and celebrities like Joss Whedon alike felt frustration that the GamerGaters seemed to be trying to turn back the clock and make games a less cool, less inclusive, less progressive place. The movement and the backlash to it also came in the midst of a major feminist revival. A growing number of individuals and publications have been looking at pop-culture with a critical feminist slant, and so the internet seemed poised and ready to mobilize against the GamerGaters. Although some may grow tired of "feminist" being such an omnipresent descriptor these days, what's important is an understanding that being a feminist implies wanting equality, not superiority. As that sinks in, and people stop viewing these conversations as "us against them," I think the negativity that people harbor towards the Anita Sarkeesians of the world will subside. That said, it will take a while for games to fully get over this whole thing, but I think positive change will come. Games with more diverse characters, more sophisticated narratives, and designed with more than just a very narrow demo in mind. A gaming culture that is increasingly diverse, sophisticated, and that once again feels like the kind of thing that cool, smart, progressive people want to be a part of.

And of course, that's not to say that games in 2014 weren't awesome in and of themselves. It still felt like a transitional year, with the XBOX One and PS4 still sort of finding their footing. 2015 seems to be the year that the big influx of next-generation games will really begin. But 2014 continued the interesting trend of indie, digital-only games getting as much buzz as their big, blockbuster, franchise-ready counterparts. That trend certainly will continue in 2015, with digital indie games like No Man's Sky seeming to be just as anticipated as the next iterations of Uncharted, etc. I like it. As some of the big franchises become more and more impenetrable with each iteration, it seems like some of the most original, creative, and fresh-feeling development is happening in the indie space.

For me, time for hardcore gaming sessions was rare in the past year. And much of my play time was devoted to wrapping up 2013-and-older titles like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite. However, I did take the plunge and purchase a PS4, so I've been trying to play catch-up on some of the big games of this year.


I once again did not play anywhere near the number of new games I wanted to in 2014. I've been binging a bit over the holidays playing catch-up, and I will say that there was some really good stuff this year. I think that 2013's The Last of Us was such a monumental game - I spent a lot of time on it in 2014, and there was nothing this year that, for me, was quite on that level.

So my Game of the Year for 2014 is a bit of a cheat:

1.) The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead: Season 2

- I love what Telltale Games is doing these days. Back in the day, I was enamored with point-and-click adventure games. Sure, the gameplay mechanics were simple, but the games were unforgettable. There's a reason why people have been going crazy in recent weeks over the announcements of HD remakes of classics like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. Those games rocked. And it's great to see adventure games making a comeback, almost entirely because of Telltale. Really though, these guys are raising the bar in general when it comes to storytelling in games. The writing on The Walking Dead series eclipses that of the show. The writing in The Wolf Among Us is every bit as good as Fables, the comic on which it is based. I'm a huge, longtime fan of Fables. In what world is a videogame spin-off giving me one of the best Fables stories I've seen in years? In this world, I guess. Telltale deserves huge kudos for what they are doing. It's come to the point where my first choice for any narrative-driven franchise adaptation is now to have it turned into a Telltale game. Speaking of which, I can't wait to dive into their version of Game of Thrones.

2.) Dragon Age: Inquisition

- I'm still only in the early stages of Dragon Age: Inquisition, but I can already tell that this is a game that, like Skyrim before it, could easily envelop my entire life and that would be that. What was cool about Skyrim was that the narrative happened on the fringes of the game - really, you made your own story. But Dragon Age mixes the massive open world of Skyrim with Bioware's trademark storytelling to create a game that's both expansive and story-driven. I believe the word I'm looking for is "epic."

3.) Infamous: Second Son

- I've been a fan of the Infamous franchise, but something about Second Son really appealed to me. Maybe it was just that the next-gen upgrade made the open-world that much smoother and prettier. Maybe it was that the story was a little better-written and more interesting. Maybe it was that the gameplay seemed just a little tighter. But Second Son is hell of a game that was one of the first of this generation to feel truly next-gen.

4.) Shadows of Mordor

- I didn't anticipate that the Batman: Arkham Asylum games would make a good template for a Lord of the Rings game, but ... they did. Shadows of Mordor is a fun, action-packed adventure that builds on the Batman games with an interesting "nemesis" system in which enemies remember your previous battles, and make tactical adjustments the next time you meet. Very cool stuff. My one complaint is that the story and world doesn't quite feel Lord of the Ring-ish enough for me - the darker tone seems more suited to some other fictional universe.

5.) Broken Age

- Speaking of old-school adventure games, this Kickstartered gem is a return to point-and-click from maestro Tim Schafer, the man who helped bring us the classics like Grim Fandango that I mentioned above. The crowd-funded nature of the game means that Schafer was free to keep the gameplay classic and familiar, while imbuing the graphics with a modern sheen. And man, it looks great. The story and humor is classic Schafer. Hopefully this leads to more games in this vein that don't need Kickstarter to get made.

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