And we’re not just talking about the indie unheard ofs.
Image: The Last of Us
As every year comes to a close, we are confronted with a solemn, holy occasion, when many of us come together to meditate on what the best and truly consequential things in our lives are. Right now, across this blue world, video game writers are choosing their Games of the Year™, a practice that is as righteous as it is daunting. But 2014, in the year of our Lords of Shadow, is an odd duck. It's quacking us up.
Many years there's an heir apparent. Sure, there's variations: Many publications think The Last of Us was GOTY, some felt GTA V was GOTY, some say Bioshock Infinite, while others that Gone Home was GOTY—and none were incorrect.
But what did the industry serve us this year? Titanfall and Watch Dogs feel like distant, forgotten memories. Destiny, grandiose as it was, lost steam quickly, feeling like we were served the bill first and are still waiting for the second course. But an incomplete Destiny is a blessing compared to Assassin's Creed Unity and Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which were broken upon release. Few of these games failed commercially, but most of them let down their fans. VICE's own Mike Diver thinks this year's GOTY are just last year's GOTY.
Being bummed by the AAA game industry isn't a brand new development, we've had years of blahs before, but 2014 feels different because, while there was no single blockbuster that captivated us, we successfully managed to stay entertained. When the safe bets stuttered, we learned to gamble on the dark horses.
Even the indie scene has its own hype infrastructure, and when I talk about what big hits happened from small places, I'm not even referring to Capybara, DoubleFine or Studio Pixel, who all had good games this year. But some complete unknowns had better.
It feels most fitting to start with a game released with no pretence, from someone literally disconnected from the scene, but was easily one of the most widely played titles this year.
Adored and aggravating, while it was originally uploaded in 2013, this was the year Flappy Bird broke. Made by Dong Nguyen, a Vietnam local who suddenly pulled the game a few weeks into its domination. Not because it had haters, not because of rumours that Nintendo could pull his ass into court over obviously inspired pipe assets, but according to a Rolling Stone profile, because he was worried the game was so popular and so difficult it was ruining people's lives.
Flappy Bird set a sort of prescient. It was simple in appeal and design but it was also a bit of a fluke, discovered and distributed rapidly, creating a big rabid following at a speed Ubisoft, EA and Activision would and maybe have killed for.
When I think about a game this year with a dizzying following, the alliterate thing that comes to mind is Five Nights at Freddy's. Once again, a game made by someone unknown to the scene had suddenly become an honour student. The game, tapping into psychology of Creepy Pastas, had lured willingly devoted into starting its own rumour mill.
Fans making speculative 15-minute long videos to make sense of all the breadcrumbs left in Five Nights and Five Nights at Freddy's 2—a sequel which came out only a few months later—is the kind of cult horror franchise we haven't seen since A Nightmare on Elm Street. Albeit, the swift launch may have been an accident as well, not that the fans are complaining.
This isn't to say that the en masse consumers or spooked players have made the indie game basin irrelevant, if anything it feels like they're all unconsciously working towards the same goal of pushing hidden gems they think should be champions. Monument Valley was greatly promoted by game making peers, even if it wasn't explicitly made by one of their own stars. It just looked really neat, and after coming out, lived up to the promise of being really neat.
Monument Valley has replaced Angry Birds as a gateway game for people with the right tech, but previously no interest in virtual time wasters. It's gorgeous, simple and easy, though unlike the alienating Mountain it's also intuitive, not that the two are mutually exclusive from your iPhone.
And for most Desert Golf probably fits into this category. While I heard about it through unrelated word of mouth, I really enjoyed Justin Smith's previous games Enviro-Bear and No Brakes Valet. Desert Golf, however, was a popular mutation. Simple to play, and understand how to play, but never why you were playing it. Equal measures addictive and mystifying, sating both gamey game players and total weirdos.
None of these games push the limits of their platforms. A nihilistic golfing game and a haunted family pizza castle survival sim do not sound like safe bets for superstars. And yet here we are.
The comfortable rhythms of independent releases on PSN, Steam and Kickstarter feel like they can be suddenly interrupted by a left field strike. I can't shake the gumption that the next great thing will be available off itch.io or someone's Patreon. Or even, god help us all, a browser game.
A browser game, America.
Great independent games have been recognized for the last few years, but many felt like they arrived with a red carpet extended before them. Some even had entire documentaries. Now, because of one part underwhelming major releases and one part everyone getting in on the game dev action, it feels impossible to forecast where the next game of the year could come from. And that feels great.