10. CRY UNCLE (Illwind): Because what the world really needed was a concentration-camp MMORPG. (Yeah, it’s on Mars and the guards have plasma rifles, but even Illwind seem smugly confident that nobody really credits their fig-leaf.) At this point everyone has weighed in on it – either it’s monumentally disrespectful, the Stanford Prison Experiment as entertainment, or it’s a devastatingly brilliant leverage of Internet assholery as window into the depravity of the human condition; regardless, it’s a game that most people will prefer to experience through carefully-curated Let’s Plays. Uncle has ended and reset three times since its January release – once in a bloody battle between Concord troops and camp guards, once in a death-march, once by a steady choking-off of the resource stream. At this point, by all accounts, the early chaos has stabilised, the user-base has been whittled down to a grizzled core of expert douchebags, and the kind of quietly heartbreaking stories that the thing produced in its first few months are no more: but holy shit, that was a thing while it lasted.
9. POWER BOUNCE HEROES (Linda Muzorewa /Perehilion): Grognards have been lamenting the commercial death of the platformer genre since the early 90s, but 2014 was the year that offered some hope that they might have a future again. Purists may insist on calling mobile-targeted, twitch- and precision-free games like Hooray Balloon, Princess Expedition and From the Clouds ‘jumplikes’, while the comments sections remain choked with clueless kids who appear sincerely angry and confused at the concept of two-dimensional characters who can jump many times their own height – but the professional polish, accessible design and guileless humour of Power Bounce Heroes made me, at least, a tentative convert.
8. HEADSHOT HITLER (Wolfsshanze Foundation): Yes, it’s been available in some shape or other for the better part of the last six years, but this is the year that the weird, obsessive alternate-history piece, haphazardly developed by a tightly-knit and inscrutable community, somehow constituted itself into a nonprofit and Greenlit the thing, and the rest of the world took to Twitter to yell about whether it was a Nazi re-enactor’s fantasy (the detail on those uniforms, contrasted against the grey, faceless crowds and false-front landscape, makes this hard to discredit), a revenge shooter, a big middle finger to German content restrictions, or a treatise on ballistics and the human body. Its thirty levels – each representing actual or planned attempts on Hitler’s life at wildly varying degrees of historical speculation – rarely last more than ten minutes apiece, but take an awful lot of practice to overcome. On the rare occasions that I managed to wing Schicklgruber before going down under a pile of meaty-headed SS thugs, the anatomical bullet-trajectory diagram and authoritative-sounding mortality percentage was strangely soothing.
7. TAFFETA KINGDOM (Heavy Petal): Spiritual successor to the 2003 cult hit Silk Kingdom, Taffeta Kingdom’s five sultry heroes manipulate the political fate of Ruritania through strategic ballroom dance. Even if you have no interest in mastering the more abtruse points of the dance system or remembering why you should care about the Baron von Echtensdorf, it’s always fun to send your career into a Scandal death-spiral with cross-dressing, indiscriminate flirts and (whisper it) waltz, then seeing whether you can keep your social standing afloat until someone invades. Heavy Petal has already announced the sequel, Charleston Republic, for mid-2016; it’s an open question as to whether I’ll have got through all of the DLC by then. (Seriously, you haven’t experienced TK if you haven’t got Charming Rustic Dances. Two words: peasant rebellion.)
6. CIA SHADOW GUARDIANS IV: HOMELAND STORM (PanArts): The year’s biggest first-person security game can hardly escape mention. To outsiders, the plot’s continuing ramifications are deeply confusing – perennial all-American hero Thad Harding, by this point, is a professor of constitutional law, the most decorated soldier in the history of the Special Forces, and either the officially-appointed Director of the CIA (there’s also a de facto Director and a shadow Director), a hunted traitor, and/or the faceless founder of a landless nation that exists only as a ghost of the intelligence community. He has personally eliminated somewhere between five and eleven heads of state, depending on how you played the first four games. Fortunately for mere mortals, it’s possible to ignore the greater portion of the byzantine plot and entertain yourself with upgrading your big black SUV, strategically drone-striking Connecticut, and rage-sneaking around the world’s scenic hotels and dungeons ruining the lives of your former allies when their icons go Traitor Red. If you want to know what any of it is meant to be about, the edit wars on the wiki seem to have mostly simmered down by this point.
5. MALT QUEST (Wee Radge): Theoretically a promotional game for Invermar distillery, the all-text Malt Quest appears to have metastatised into its own thing, a blend of abstract tower defence (fending off the excisemen by day) builder RTS (gathering ingredients and dodging bogles by night) and expressionist-crafting (making the actual whisky). Like a lot of browser-based things, it’s a horrible attention-sink that will glom up all of your spare moments and slowly intrude upon your actually-doing-shit until you either finish the damn game (unlikely) or perform an intervention on yourself. But about midway through – okay, I’ll try not to spoil too much, but it coalesces a striking protagonist out of basically nothing and then proceeds to hit all my buttons on the Intangible Melancholy front.
4. LIMINAL (Richard Onny / Black Shuck Studios): Among the hordes of games looking to cash in on the magical-realist autobiography genre in the aftermath of Jacinta Fuentes’s Campeche (2012), the standout is undoubtedly Liminal, Onny’s meticulous re-creation of his rural English childhood hometown, transfigured by the intrusion of a fairy wood that comes and goes like the ebb of the tide. Most reviewers have focused on the atmospherics and charmingly grotesque goblin antics, but the thing’s real accomplishment is how it managed to elicit mainstream appeal for what’s basically a walking simulator / interactive diorama with only the most fragmentary shreds of plot. My sense is that it’s all down to impeccable balance and pacing, but that’s mostly just a fancy way of saying that I can’t fully analyse its strange magic.
3. KAROO (Songline): I know I’m going to get comments over this, but: I think this was a really slow year for dragonpassers. The much-anticipated Nomad IV pretty much abandoned any attempt at a coherent mythology, while simplifying intratribal tensions so much as to make them narratively irrelevant; Covenant of Feathers sells itself as an over-the-top ironic revisit of the silly animal-people tribes that characterised early-aughts games, which would have been briefly cute if last year’s Schweinvolk hadn’t already done it better; Fyrd Oath admittedly had some bad-ass raiding mechanics, but good lord was the level of detail given to concubinage creepy. But the relatively low-budget Karoo absolutely nailed the two things I love most about passers: a rich cultural backdrop (a sort of alternate-universe Boer-Khoisan syncretism) and a strongly-characterised, heavily-involved council. And yeah, okay, like apparently everyone else on the internet I have a big ol’ crush on Vygie. Shut up. The archaeology frame-story mode has got a lot of attention (and spawned a giant ‘pots are people!‘ meme that needs to die soonest); I’m not sure it’s anything more than a neat gimmick, but it’s a really neat gimmick and that deserves credit.
2. WFTDA: JAM LINE NIGHTMARE 2014 (PanArts). I know this is going to ruin my indie cred, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Jam Line series – it’s based on the one sport I actually follow, and it has consistently had the most interesting off-court narrative options of any of the major-league tie-ins. Like any sane person, I default to creating wacky fantasy leagues and messing around with the sliders to make big-hit blocking viable and nerf Gotham and and suchlike. And yeah, sure, it looks like a bajillion-dollar game and plays slicker than a lubed-up otter and has a thousand variant animations and everyone can live out their being-Bonnie-Thunders dreams if they want, but. BUT. This wouldn’t make the list even slightly if it hadn’t gone so utterly crazy on the off-court stuff. If you haven’t been playing these things for a while – look, normally this is sort of generic and muted and represented through excitedly vague newspaper headlines, but in WFTDA 2014 the off-court stuff is like an entire different game, and it’s a game that’s basically reality TV if it stopped giving a shit and snorfled up a big pile of coke and went all-out. In my current game I got invited to the White House and threw up in the Oval Office and then kissed the President’s daughter so nice that she married me, even though I was already rivalmancing Tehran’s star jammer. Like, rivalmancing so hard that her likeness is tattooed across my entire bicep because I lost a drunken bet. Then I won Internationals (obviously) and celebrated by buying the Space Needle and turning it into my Star Crib, where I spent the entire off-season doing deadlifts in a gold lamé dressing-gown while assorted celebrities drop in to complain about their love lives, beg me to play cameo roles in their current projects, and raid my bar. Oh, and I own a snow leopard. His name is Eternal Justice, and he pisses on the rug whenever Willem Dafoe comes round to discuss our yoga-pants brand. Look, I’m invested, OK?
1. TRAVESTY (Games In The Round). Gestural theatre RP is a kind of an acquired taste, but Travesty shows some encouraging signs of being a breakout hit – at least, once it gets a few more of its features rolled out. Travesty‘s biggest accomplishment, to my mind, is how effectively the deck-building structure sets player expectations (and limits bad behaviour) even for pickup games. I’ve played better games in Nobilis Open and ModaLARP, but those were scheduled events with hand-picked groups, and even those collapse fairly often. Travesty pickups are consistently enjoyable and tonally consistent, largely because it does such a good job of directing you towards players with similar goals – a tough job in tabletop, let alone online. The other big advantage is how deck-set creation provides an easy entry point for scenario and character creators: a relatively small core community has created a lot of content in the six months since it came out, and some of it is already rivaling the default scenarios in quality.
There’s a long way to go – multi-session support is still a way off, the spectator system needs a serious overhaul, an authoring tool that doesn’t rely on the cloud would be really nice, and having more than one NPC tends to clog up the action flow, particularly if you’re one of the wackos who for some reason thinks that it makes sense to play competitively. It’s not perfect in every way – I probably had more fun in Jam Line 2014 and Taffeta Kingdom, for instance. But this is, no question, the game that I expect we’ll be talking reverentially about ten years from now.