2014 was a pretty terrible year for everyone. In fact, I’m going to take this opportunity to revoke 2014. It didn’t happen. History will go from 2013 straight to 2015. This means we all get another year in exchange. If you turned 30 in 2014 congrats, you are 29 again. If you turned 100 in 2014, you get to select any age between 96 and 105. If you turned 20 in 2014, I’m setting your age back to 17. You could really use another year of school. You’ll thank me later.
So to bring the year that is now no longer exists to a close, here is an arbitrary list of the games made in 2014 that I enjoyed but didn’t have enough to talk about for an entire blog post each. Also, for the record, these games now came out in “2013 and a half.”
The Floor is Jelly, Hohokum, and Gay Cats Go To The Weird Weird Woods
Recently I won a copy of Hohokum in a Twitter trivia contest. Its the story of a little space-sperm with an illuminati eye who flies between different worlds and looks for their siblings. It’s colorful and charming and the simple controls give you a lovely sensation of flying. There aren’t any real requirements, other than the option of exploring an environment long enough to find another little space-sperm to fly around with. The main goal of the game is less to solve puzzles and more to enjoy the experience of your little avatar looping through the sky and making round patterns in the air.
It brought to mind another game that felt less about its puzzles and challenges and more about playing with digital motion. The Floor Is Jelly follows a little jumping thing on its journey across a world where everything is bouncy. There are physics-based platforming challenges and simple logic problems to solve, but they mostly seem there to give you an excuse to play with the sensation of bouncing.
In some ways, these games feel a bit like digital dancing. The player is given a series of stages (theatrical stages, not just game stages) and a character with a very specific style of movement.
Another game in this style does not even have the pretense of “puzzles” at all and instead allows the player complete freedom to explore its movement. Anna Antropy’s Gay Cats go to the Weird Woods is much simpler in scope than either The Floor Is Jelly or Hohokum. You control two cats at the same time, who can only move in four directions and move one tile at a time. Like her previous game, Emotica, it feels reminiscent of the old homemade ZZT adventures. The graphics are more advanced than ZZT, but there is still the limited and deliberate tile-by-tile movement. Despite the lack of “puzzles,” the game offers the same feeling of exploring movement and environment. When one of the cats touches the right part of the woods, things change and the map reacts. As each movement you make involves both cats simultaneously, this can lead to unexpected discoveries as well as deliberate choreography by the player.
I like games that play with limited movement, whether it is the very simple four-directional movement of Gay Cats or the complex bouncing of The Floor Is Jelly. Not all games require you to explore a space with an avatar, and not all games should. But those that do always feel like they’re letting me explore another world while wearing a digital diving suit of sorts. I project myself into the little puppet I control, and experience a world of alien physics and perspectives. These three games all allowed me to do so through different means, and playing with space and movement in those games felt rewarding as a result.
We have too many nostalgia-obsessed games. Worse yet, too many of them are lazy, soulless and banal. “Download our 8bit mobile platformer! Its totally like living in the 80s! Remember how pixels exist?” screams the social network ad. “Relive the joys of not having anything better to do with our selection of 200 90s-inspired jrpg! Each complete with the same story about someone with amnesia and an evil empire!” they shout at you. It is increasingly rare to find a game that trades of nostalgia and homage that also manages to be interesting, loving and fun. Freedom Planet is one of these rare games. It is unabashedly a celebration of Sega Genesis platformers from Sonic to Ristar to Rocket Knight, it even started life as a Sonic the Hedgehog fan-game. But early in development, the creators decided they would rather use that nostalgic inspiration to create something new and genuine, and what came from that is much stronger. Not to downplay fan culture too much (I mean, I’d be screwing myself and my Yoshi-paleontology obsession over), but its clear how much this original story means to the creators, and that enthusiasm shines through in a way I don’t think a straight forward fan-Sonic would have.
Freedom Planet follows the adventures of three unapologetically girly best friends as they race across the planet. The game controls perfectly, taking inspiration from classic games but refusing to be slave to them. Every piece of the game is thoughtfully and deliberately designed, including tons of little ways to interact with the world around you. The only real downside is that the story scenes are LONG and numerous, but even that is tolerable considering how likable the cast and acting is. If more attempts to recreate a perceived lost magic of the past were this thoughtful, the industry would probably be a whole lot less bitter and cynical.
Every time I’ve seen this game on display at an event, it dominated the crowd’s attention. There’s good reason for this. It is simple to grasp and control, inherently funny and visually interesting, and it connects you to the other player(s). Each player controls one mouth, and your goal is to kiss. How you do so is up to you, and the battle between each player’s desires (and tongue) creates all kinds of interesting results.
Shower Sim is, frankly, the single most accurate simulation I have ever played.
Conquest places you in an interstellar graveyard for people who died in space. You wander around and look at the gravestones (some of the broken). You can also take on the role of the cemetery’s caretaker, and take perform a few tasks while your unseen boss sends you insulting messages. Conquest has a pleasantly simple aesthetic that suits its tone well. All you can do is wander the cemetery, do your thankless work, and think about those who died to get you to where you are. What stories were left behind in the quest for space, and what does it mean to be someone reaping those benefits in a menial job like yours?
Despite how you feel when you’re drunk or on twitter, comedy is not easy. Comedy is actually quite hard and complicated. Very few attempts at being funny are actually funny, especially in video games. This year we got two indie games that are both INCREDIBLY funny, and each funny for a different, but related, reason. Octodad takes a ridiculous, ludicrous premise (an octopus tries to disguise his true identity from his human family and society at large) but juxtaposes it with humor largely drawn from normal family dynamics and everyday life. On the opposite scale we have Goat Simulator, which takes an extremely mundane, non-ludicrous premise (be a goat) and juxtaposes it with a world full of complete insanity. Both games then involve you creating a gigantic mess of the world you’ve been given, but even then the humor follows those patterns. Octodad’s humor comes from the world accepting your destruction as normal (to a point), and reacting accordingly. Goat Simulator’s humor comes from the world being thrown into complete chaos by your actions. Octodad rewards you for trying to limit the chaos and fit in despite your ludicrous origin, while in Goat Simulator your goat will cause incredible destruction even if you tried to walk around like a “real” goat.