Picking the Game of the Year never seemed to make a lot of sense to me. Making lists for yourself is one thing, but throwing around a label like it’s a medal seems wildly irresponsible for something so volatile and intimate. If the interminable deliberation podcasts and livestreams weren’t proof enough, just go asking your friend what they think of your pick for the year. Getting a hundred people to agree on a single pizza topping would be easier.
Besides, the likelihood of you playing every game out in the course of a year is unlikely. Other journalists whose sole job is to review games (and not just talk about whatever floats their boat) don’t even manage that. For all the amazing things I’ve heard about Save the Date and Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing, I won’t get around to playing either of those by the end of the year, and they could just be waiting to be my favorite games of ever, let alone the year.
But here we are. Over the course the next two weeks, I’ll be delving into the year’s most significant trends, the biggest news stories, and my personal top ten games of the year. However, we’ll start with the honorable mentions because I like them a whole lot, god dammit, and you’re going to hear about them. It’ll also tickle your pickle as to what I have in store for the real list. Let’s go!
Kentucky Route Zero
There are a few things standing in the way of Kentucky Route Zero being on the real list: 1) only two acts of the planned five have been released, 2) I haven’t gone back to play since its January release and I’m not sure if I remember it being better than it actually was, and 3) I never played Act II. But considering all that and knowing that I still wanted it to be on the list should tell you something: it’s unbelievable.
If there was ever a game to pin the words “stylish”, “slick”, and “cool” to, it would be Kentucky Route Zero. It’s a strange little adventure game from Cardboard Computer that looks spectacular and is altogether alluring, disturbing, funny, sad, and twisted. And the way you naturally shape the story through conversation is brilliant. It made talking less of a data-mining process and more of a reward.
I jumped. Sitting on a bench as the sunset, headphones on and staring at my iPad, I flinched and damn near yelped aloud, scaring the couple walking by to the pier. And I continued to sit there and play. Filling time until my friend got off work to meet me turned into looking over my shoulder, not sure if the noises were coming from behind the trees or from Year Walk. Or maybe from me.
Year Walk is another adventure game, though much more in the vein of The Room-style puzzles than anything you’d find in a Monkey Island game. It sets itself in the fascinating and terrifying Swedish tradition of Årsgång (translated literally into “year walk“). You isolate yourself in a room with no drink or water for a whole day, and at midnight, you set out into the forest and walk.
And if you’re unfamiliar with Swedish folklore, it’s scary. It’s hella scary. There are goat-men and tree spirits and blood dolls and, well, everything you didn’t know would soon come to make up the majority of your nightmares. It makes Year Walk intense and oh so atmospheric, but its puzzles, sound design, and amazing art also set it apart. Come for the game, stay for the Swedish horror.
The worst part about Gunpoint is its name. And then the next worst thing is…well, that actually falls on the good side of the line. Gunpoint is a thoroughly great game from journalist-turned-game-designer Tom Francis. It’s a 2D action puzzle game that features a man, some jokes, and a fantastic pair of pants.
You infiltrate buildings and accomplish covert ops by rewiring doors, alarms, lights, and whatever else with a device called a Crosslink. It turns any skyscraper or room or anything into your personal playground. You can experiment with connecting lights to doors and alarms to elevators, pushing and pulling the wills of each guard as easily as if you were controlling them directly.
But it’s this indirect control that makes Gunpoint compelling. Seeing how literal systems hook together to affect implicit systems is amazingly fun, and timing that to you darting between narrow openings and jumping into windows to make larger openings, it’s a game you could poke around with for years to come.
Saints Row IV
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “But Alex, you gave Saints Row IV a 9 out of 10! How can it not be on your GOTY list?!” Well first off, that’s not my name. And second, it’s, uh, it’s hard to explain. There is objective quality and there is subjective quality, right? I can objectively say that one ballet dancer is better than another but that doesn’t mean I like watching ballet.
Saints Row IV is a bit like that, but minus the dancing. Or, actually, plus the dancing and multiplied by dubstep. There is so much to like about Saints Row IV from the writing to the voice acting to the unparalleled winks and nods to movies, music, other games, and pop culture in general. It’s amazing how much high quality frivolity is stuffed into the one game, and it’s equally astounding how they made it all fun to play.
You can jump super high and run super fast and kill super hard. You end up playing a text adventure and going through a side-scrolling brawler and…and…and everything else. It’s so systematic in its approach that the personality that I loved from Saints Row: The Third had diminished so greatly. Saints Row IV is still a hell of a game and funny and charming as hell, but it’s missing that magic that made me fall in love with 2011’s Stilwater shenanigans.