It Wasn’t All Bad: The Official, Objective 2014 Badass Digest Games of the Year

Celebrating the best bits from a miserable shitsuck of a year.

If you were into games in 2014, you probably had a pretty crappy time for at least some of it.

GamerGate - an eruption of bigotry long-festering within gaming - was easily the worst gaming thing of the year, and of many years prior and hence. As the dust settles on that putrid, misogynistic “movement,” the actual scope of its impact becomes apparent. It’ll pass, and though its awful underlying philosophies will linger on, they too will diminish, if only through the concerted work of the good guys. One can only hope that the harassment, the doxing, the threats, and the swatting will diminish too, and that the damage can be cut off at that already done. Change is coming - slower than I’d like, faster than ‘Gaters would like, but it’s definitely coming.

But even without the GamerGate bullshit, it was still a disappointing year in many respects. Major new IPs like Watch_Dogs and Destiny proved either tired retreads of existing tropes, or well-honed but narratively desolate loot scroungers. Many online games suffered from network issues. Notoriously, Assassin’s Creed: Unity emerged riddled with bugs and performance issues, demonstrating that a strictly annual release schedule is folly. Microsoft completed their slow, depressing U-turn on all the novel ideas they had with the Xbox One, unbundling the Kinect, laying off thousands of employees, and guaranteeing that this generation of Xbox games will play identically to the last. And as a chaser, Lizard Squad ruined Christmas by taking down PSN and Xbox Live servers the world over.

Luckily, even I have to admit the year wasn’t all bad, despite my tendency towards grumpiness. Though “gamers” (an identity I will be glad to see perish) demonstrated themselves to be garbage, and major publishers spat the dummy in embarrassing ways, the positive elements of the gaming world showed immense promise. The community rallied around GamerGate targets like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, who continue to do good work in advocacy and development alike. The reaction my GamerGate guest lecture at Virginia Tech received renewed my confidence in the goodness of people. Fantastic Arcade and my November visit to PAX Australia made me excited for the medium again. In our own little microcosm within a microcosm, BAD readers stepped up their excellence, both in the comments and in building a Steam group. And of course, developers worldwide turned out some really sterling work.

So here, in alphabetical order (and discounting unfinished episodic or publicly unavailable titles like Broken Age and Push Me Pull You), are the ten official, objective Badass Digest Games of the Year.

Game of the Year: Alien Isolation

Alien: Isolation is the rarest of AAA games: one that takes risks. Its protagonist and story are refreshingly practical: you’re a space mechanic piecing together the collapse of a space station, and you’re doing it, incidentally, as a woman, capable and strong without being a cartoonish badass. The gameplay is borderline experimental, utilising a single, unscripted, systems-driven alien that can’t be killed. Every other Alien game has been a variation on bug-shooting, but not Isolation. It’s an organic and tense experience that bucks nearly every horror-game trend in the business. (Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor similarly used systems-driven enemies, but to to build enemy hierarchies and even create emergent stories.) For bringing indie-style design and narrative to AAA gaming with quiet, understated confidence, Alien: Isolation is my Game of the Year.

Game of the Year: Dark Souls II

There’s no game this year I’ve become more absorbed in than Dark Souls II. I’ve finished it, played the DLC, and done additional playthroughs with different character builds. The combat is sublime, the difficulty alternatingly punishing and rewarding, and the environmental storytelling a rabbit hole of lore far more subtle than the also-great Dragon Age: Inquisition. The level design, while not quite as ingenious as the first game’s interconnected layout, still sports many well-designed areas that I could now draw from memory. For its sadomasochistic difficulty and its deep, sorrowful story, Dark Souls II is my Game of the Year.

Game of the Year: Gang Beasts

Okay: this is an unfinished Early Access game, but I’d be remiss to talk about 2014 without mentioning Gang Beasts. One of the showcase games at this year’s Fantastic Arcade, Gang Beasts and its Pillsbury Dough Boy-like player characters make brutal deathmatches adorable and hilarious. This game and its emergent, pro-wrestling meets Smash Bros battle tactics gave me some of the funniest moments of gaming all year (up there with the likes of Goat Simulator and Jazzpunk). Watch out for when this thing gets released. For being flat-out fucking hilarious, Gang Beasts is my Game of the Year.

Game of the Year: Monument Valley

Rarely has the phrase “indie darling” applied so neatly to a game as the Escher-inspired Monument Valley. It only has a handful of levels, inevitably irritating the mouthbreathing “value for money” crowd, but what levels they are! Each is a little puzzle-box, revealing new, delightful tricks with each unfolding layer. But while the isometric perspective-shifting gameplay may be Monument Valley’s most striking feature, its whimsical, sad fantasy world sticks in my memory most. Full of strange crow people, friendly totem poles, and impossible, frequently crumbling architecture, it’s a haunting magical kingdom gone to waste. For its innovative gameplay and highly original art, Monument Valley is my Game of the Year. 

Game of the Year: Never Alone

Designed and developed in collaboration with the native Alaskan community and based on a folk story handed down through generations, Never Alone is pretty special. Its origin would be enough to set it apart by itself, but helpfully, Never Alone is also a good game. Its every facet is informed by the culture from which it springs, which makes it significant and educational, yes, but more importantly, emotionally compelling. The relationship between its fox and girl protagonists just feels true, grounding its more abstract themes of human-nature codependence. Its art style is adorable, its puzzle-platforming varied and interesting, and its story meaningful. For bringing real warmth to the icy cold of the Arctic, Never Alone is my Game of the Year.

Game of the Year: Nidhogg

Nidhogg has been around in beta for ages, but it finally got released this year, so it makes its way to this list. Incredibly, I first played it in September at Fantastic Arcade, and quickly grew to love its fast-paced, easy to learn, difficult to master swordfighting gameplay. It’s one of the best party games out there, thanks to its frequently short matches (though equally-skilled players can make them last), simple graphics, and deaths consistently funny in their matter-of-factness. It’s a game that can make best friends yell at each other and worst enemies shake hands after a game well-played. For carrying the local-multiplayer torch with deceptive precision, Nidhogg is my Game of the Year.

Game of the Year: Threes

I’ve sunk more hours into Threes than any other game this year. Like the best mobile games (including Desert Golfing, which deserves a mention here too), it’s a simple concept executed flawlessly and with just the right touch of goofiness. Though its number-blending gameplay has inspired legions of ripoffs, the original is still the best, with checks and balances to discourage exploits and keep things challenging and fun. Its visual style is simple and cute: the cards don’t need to have personality for the game to work, but they do, eliciting smiles if you’re into it and remaining unobtrusive if you’re not. For its addictive, simple gameplay and understated sense of character, and for forcing me to uninstall it several times to curb my addiction, Threes is my Game of the Year.

Game of the Year: Titanfall

The only new big-budget IP this year to really take my fancy, Titanfall is also the sole multiplayer shooter that I’ve put serious time into. Its story and setting might be cookie-cutter “resistance vs mercs” fare, but its action gameplay is some of the best of the year. Whether you’re stomping around in a mech, fighting alongside one, or best of all, zipping through windows and over buildings on foot, Titanfall is an exhilarating, fast-paced, and precise multiplayer hootenanny. With its interconnecting gameplay mechanics, it’s possible to achieve incredible manoeuvres, feeling powerful even if you get killed frequently. For breathing fresh ideas into the tired online-shooter genre, Titanfall is my Game of the Year.

Game of the Year: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

The best game from a studio with wildly uneven 2014 output (the unfinished Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the uninspired Watch_Dogs and The Crew, the great Far Cry 4), Valiant Hearts is a total delight. It tells a sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always charming story that entertains as much as it educates, doing justice to the pointless war in which it’s set. As its multiple protagonists move through World War I, the story becomes grim, but without sacrificing the good-hearted loveliness at its core. It’s also the second optionally-educational game on this list, sharing with Never Alone screeds of background information on its setting that informs every aspect of the game. For its portrayal of adorable characters braving a horrifying situation, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is my Game of the Year.

Game of the Year: Wolfenstein: The New Order

Nobody expected much from a new Wolfenstein game. But Machine Studios did something remarkable with The New Order, taking the tired Nazi-shooter franchise into alternate-history sci-fi filled with emotion and likeable characters. Archetypical dumb gun-toter B.J. Blazkowicz is now a fully-formed protagonist with relationships and feelings - a couple misjudged sequences aside, there’s no better symbol for the potential of games to be more mature. Even the gameplay got a refresh, augmenting the series’ traditional hail-of-bullets gameplay with really workable stealth mechanics and some clever level design. For its exceptional storytelling and reinvention of a mouldy franchise, Wolfenstein: The New Order is my Game of the Year.

Studio of the Year: Telltale Games

Telltale had a banner year in 2014. They completed The Wolf Among Us and the second season of The Walking Dead, debuted Tales From The Borderlands and Game of Thrones, and announced one more series, Minecraft: Story Mode. Ever since their current renaissance really began with The Walking Dead, the studio has set ever-greater challenges for itself - and not vapid stuff like more realistic particle effects. Rather, each successive Telltale adaptation has pushed boundaries in storytelling, tone, and character work. This year, they’ve told stories from perspectives as varied as an 11-year-old girl and a werewolf detective, cleared the hurdle of multiple protagonists, and successfully adapted both a first-person shooter and one of the most beloved TV properties in the world. That their next project is an attempt to inject character and story into a game that has literally none seems appropriate. Hollywood doesn’t know how to tell a Minecraft story, but Telltale seem confident. If I was them, I would be, too. For consistently telling the best stories in gaming, Telltale Games are my Studio of the Year.

So thanks to everyone who's helped make 2014 not a complete write-off. It’s been my first year at BAD and first as a gaming editor, and despite the inevitable Internet shitbirds and abuse (of which I know I only suffered a small fraction), it’s been a blast. I’ve made a lot of new friends and I treasure you all.

Especially you! Yeah, you.