Friday, January 2, 2015

My Favorite Gaming Moments of 2014

What a strange year 2014 was. It was the year I turned and legitimately started to feel middle aged, for better or for worse. But with all the downsides that come with getting older come plenty of upsides, mostly in the form of knowing yourself better, and being able to hopefully minimize the things you don't enjoy in life.

When you've been alive as long as me, you can't help but learn a few things about the world. Actually, that's not entirely true. I'm still mostly at a loss with a ton of things, but I do know how to seek out a great new gaming experience when I'm in the mood. And as is tradition, here are my favorite moments from the past year:

1) Escaping The Room with Friends

Room escape games have been around for a while, and I've always enjoyed the concept, but have never gotten super into them. If you're not familiar with the genre, they're basically self-contained puzzle games that place you inside of some small space - usually one room - and task you with getting out of that room, usually by scouring every nook and cranny for things to unlock other things.

Escape The Room NYC decided to bring the concept to life, inviting groups to pay to get locked in an actual space together for an hour and work together trying to get out. I had a group of friends that enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity to do so. We played through two of the now five available scenarios, and we escaped in one and just barely failed at the other. That loss was heartbreaking, but it also speaks to how difficult the games are, because my friends and I know our way around puzzles.

If you're in the NYC and have friends that are up for the challenge of deciphering codes, running their hands along every surface of a room, and shouting out everything they see and do as they're seeing and doing them (you may want to mix up this particular strategy), then I highly recommend checking these games out:

2) Making The World Ours And Creating Our Own Risk: Legacy

If you've ever played the original Risk before, may not have fond memories of the experience. Even if you're up for the multi-hour trial of taking and losing land only to find yourself making a pathetic last stand in Madagascar, you might just feel like the formula's become a little basic after all these years, with all the better games out there - some of them not even about taking over the world!

I present to you: Risk: Legacy, which actually creates an ongoing campaign for a dedicated group of friends (or soon to be enemies) to play through. Its a fascinating concept and they fully deliver on it - the world evolves over time, with certain areas and armies becoming stronger and weaker after each game. You even tear up certain cards when you hit certain milestones, which is kind of insane, and is also a testament to how committed the game is to the idea of making permanent changes.

Of course, no matter what changes you make, the real strategy in Risk is still all about making strategic alliances. But unlike previous games of Risk, there are much longer lasting repercussions to breaking one. I personally have never broken an alliance, but I've only won one out of out ten games so far, so what do I know? Nothing, except that this game is a ton of fun.

3) Smashin' Fools For Days In The New Super Smash Bros. 

Smash Bros. is one of those series that you either love or are constantly wondering what the hell is going on and why is this fun for anyone? I fall decidedly in the first camp, having been a big fan of the Nintendo character fighter since its first iteration on the N64.

There's not much for me to add here except to say I really think this is the best version of the game (versions I guess, since I'm speaking about the Wii U and the 3DS versions) yet. There's always been a lot of depth to the fighting system, and a wide range of characters and fighting styles, and that's the case now more than ever. I love that I can play it on my 3DS wherever I want, and I love that eight people can get together in a room and all play at the same time. What other fighting game has ever been crazy enough to pull that off?

Also, this is awesome:

4) The Jackbox Party Pack Has Perfected The Party Game

On the opposite end of the spectrum of local multiplayer games we have The Jackbox Party Pack, which I really think is the best party game to ever come out for any video game system. Ever. It has five games in it that all use the same mechanic - players use their smart phones as their controller, which has to be one of the greatest design decisions the gaming world has ever seen. I know I'm throwing a lot of hyperbole out there right now, but bear with me you guys, this is one the most important things I've ever written or will ever write.

There are three games worth mentioning in the pack - You Don't Know Jack, which I've loved as long as I've loved Smash Bros., Fibbage, a trivia game that tasks players with inventing their own lies for answers before trying to select the true answer, and Drawful, which replaces the trivia in Fibbage with crude drawings from player's smart phones. All the games have very simple rules that can  be explained in a manner of seconds, and games don't last longer than 20 minutes, though you're going to start a new one immediately after your first three or four at least.

I've never seen some of my friends laugh harder at some of the results from playing this game. Another brilliant design decision is that player's inevitable shitty answers/responses can be awarded "likes" even if they don't wind up getting them any points. This leads to plenty of rounds of friends just amusing themselves rather than gunning for victory, which is really secondary to any party game anyway.

I highly recommend this game for any social gathering of friends, gamers and non-gamers alike.

5) Papers, Please Hurts To Play (In A Good Way)

Up until a few days ago, this list was going to be a nice even five (you know what I mean) moments long. But then I finally sat down and played Papers Please, which I've been sitting for almost an entire year since playing the demo.

The game has been written about extensively, so I sort of knew what to expect going in, but reading about a game asking you to make awful decisions doesn't compare to having to actually make some of the awful decisions you're tasked with making at the border of the fictional country of Arstotzka (hence why you shouldn't take my word for anything I'm about to say - play the game yourself).

Papers, Please is the example I'll always point to when asked what games are capable of that no other medium can do. Being put in the position of immigration officer in a dystopian world not only perfectly captured the real-time frustration of the job, but it forced me to tackle questions I've otherwise never had to think about - how important is my integrity compared to putting food on the table? At what point is blind obedience a fool's errand? How much am I willing to stick out my neck for someone I don't really know? What is the value of a human life?

6) Don't Starve Takes Over My Mind, Life

If you had presented me a list of games I would play in 2014 a year ago, and asked me which title I'd put well over a hundred hours into in the span of a few months, I'd probably pick Skyrim (which yeah, I did play this year, and notice its not on this list), then Smash Bros, then maybe the FTL expansion (which really is great despite not being on this list). Beyond that, I would have shrugged. I certainly would never have thought a game called "Don't Starve" would have been the game I invested more time in than anything else this year, forcing me to debate whether or not I needed another Paused year to make up for it.

I don't even know where to begin with this game, its premise is so basic I almost feel ashamed describing it. You wake up on an island, and you have to survive. Are there bad guys on the island? Yeah kind of, there are aggressive things that don't like you, but will ignore you if you leave them alone. There are also pig men who will be your friend if you give them meat. But the real enemy is just time. Seasons change, the weather gets bad, and you've got to prepare for anything that can and will go wrong, all the while making sure you...well, don't starve.

There are loftier goals - you can escape the island, you can seek out larger goals/objectives if you want to, but I didn't, because surviving in Don't Starve is an ordeal that trumps just about any objective I've come across in a game. Who would have thought having to worry about food, shelter and maintaining some semblance of sanity would make for such compelling game play? Not me, that's for sure. And yet, this game that I picked up for $5 on a lark thanks to a Steam sale threw me down a rabbit hole I've only now just started to climb out of.

Don't Starve was so much of my life I wound up writing a paper on it at the end of my most recent semester (it was well received, and thankfully didn't come with an order for me to seek help). I'd recommend this game to you, but I sincerely hope you don't mind losing the hours of your life that I've (happily, mind you) given up.

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Sayonare 2014! Note that I've held out on buying any new consoles (Wii U, PS4, Xbox One) so far, with no desire to do so any time soon. Let's see how long I can hold out with this backlog of mine.

Whaddya got for me 2015?