This year was destructive and beautiful in that way only games can be. While its list of releases measured top to bottom make for an unremarkable 12 months, the industry is ageing and awakening in ways that might yet make this a landmark year.
First, it’s impossible to write about games in 2014 without mentioning Gamergate, the toxic, misogynistic campaign riding under the banner of consumer advocacy that attacked developers and critics associated with progressive approaches to games. It was the violent nihilism and entitled masculinity of mainstream games given form and sent back against itself, a reminder of creative responsibilities and the consequences of failing them.
It was also a sign of cultural anxiety, each hashtagged, abusive tweet a hairline crack in the shifting landscape of games. Things are changing. This year we said goodbye to Ralph Baer, video game pioneer and inventor of the home console, while PlayStation turned 20 and Naughty Dog, the highly regarded studio behind Uncharted and The Last of Us, turned 30. Gaming became increasingly aware of its growing legacy: in an industry obsessed with the cutting edge and beyond, there was a greater value attached to the past, and a more sophisticated appreciation of what games can do, aside from big-budget guns and sports, both violent and virtual.
As a result, 2014 encompassed vastly contrasting scales of ambition and scope. Among the top-end titles that sought to push the still-new consoles technologically, ambitious geographical settings were an unconscious theme as various games strove to master and contain huge chunks of realistic worlds. GTA V was remastered with its extraordinary recreation of Los Angeles, espionage thriller Watch_Dogspulled a similar trick with Chicago, and titanic racer The Crew settled for no less than the entire United States, condensed and wrangled into 7,000 miles of in-game road.
At the other end of the scale, smaller teams made brilliant, focused games with altogether less. A dozen people at Supergiant Games brought us the wonderful Transistor, a watercolour-lush action RPG with music running through its veins. A team of eight at Polish studio the Astronauts gave us our first pick of the year, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a compelling detective mystery that’s as much about discovering the game as it is uncovering crimes within it. And just three people at tiny UK startup Roll7 made sidescrolling skater OlliOlli, our second of the year’s best and a masterclass of moreish simplicity built on timing and expressive 8-bit graphics.
For a year marked by divisions and aggression, 2014 was also a year in which we remembered the joy of playing together – physically, rather than virtually, sharing screens, passing controllers and rediscovering parties of play. Mario Kart 8 was the finest version of Nintendo’s flagship racer for years, a mix of skill and desperate scrambling for position, and the same crush of characters and frantic action was also applied to the latest Super Smash Bros. Tiny indie teams made their presence felt here too – Nidhogg and Towerfall, two retro-styled and remarkably complex games of combat and strategy, were each made by a single creator. And Sportsfriends, a compendium of invented sports made by Danish indie Die Gute Fabrik and its collaborators, revelled in ideas of play and the value of shared fun. Its games are silly, skilful and often sublime, and together offer a manifesto for the importance of playing together that earns it a spot in the top five.
As well as playing together, 2014 was also about playing alone. While big-budget games had a quiet year, one happy exception was Alien: Isolation from UK studio Creative Assembly. The game overhauled years of misguided adaptations of the sci-fi series by returning to the clinical interiors and frosty horror of Ridley Scott’s original film – it’s meticulous and practical, a very British take on what was at the beginning a very British production, and its patience and unparalleled atmosphere make it one of the year’s best games.
Finally, there seemed general consensus that first-person shooters – the dominant genre of modern times – needed updating. Titanfall and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare brought new agility and aerial mobility to the genre, but it was Destiny, a flawed but innovative mix of shooter and MMO, that seemed to offer a true glimpse of the future. Yes, it’s a huge, heavily marketed monster, but it’s also new and extraordinary, and that makes it game of the year.
Top 5: the best games of 2014
- Destiny Man reclaims the stars in Bungie’s ambitious shooter.
- Alien: Isolation Precise adaptation of Ridley Scott’s classic.
- Sportsfriends Indie Olympics celebrating the value of play.
- OlliOlli Retro blast of timing and skill.
- The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Dark, original detective thriller.
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