Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question: What’s your favorite game of the year so far?
When Matt Gerardi sent this question out to the group, he messaged me on the side and said, “You’re answering Mario Kart 8 for this, right?” I hate to be so predictable, but yes. Mario Kart 8 is awesome. I explored the roots of that awesomeness—some of them, at least—in my review, but the online piece wasn’t available then (except as an empty husk), so let me single that out for praise. Nintendo is not known for its Internet-play prowess, and Mario Kart 8’s online matchmaking is indeed rudimentary compared to the sophisticated systems you get with a Halo or a Dark Souls. But that’s what I like about it: The game keeps the logistical complications to a minimum. You log into the online multiplayer mode, and Mario Kart 8 gets you into a race as fast as possible. If you want to be more selective about who you play with or change the parameters, it can get tricky, and the interface can be inadequate. But for people like me who just want to race against some folks ASAP with minimal hassle, it’s perfect.
This was a tight contest for me this year, and I spent quite a bit of time going back and forth between the hilarious South Park: The Stick of Truth and the majestic cartoon racer Mario Kart 8. While I was mulling that decision, I did something I’ve done way too much of recently: I started flicking about in Threes!, the tiny addition-based puzzle game that has made my mind its home since March. In what has been a tumultuous period for me, this wee thing has seeped into the cracks of my life. I’ve smooshed two threes together to make sixes on countless train rides. I’ve fought to squeeze four-digit numbers out during seemingly endless gray expanses of time. I’ve played it so much. I’ve forgotten it’s there. But it always is, and once I reminded myself to look at it, it made what I thought would be a hard decision an easy one. Threes! is my best game of 2014 with a rocket. Hell, I probably played it more than once while writing this without even realizing it.
My shadow pick for 2014 so far is Hearthstone, and certainly I’ve played enough of it the past couple of months to warrant its inclusion in the list (and possibly my own inclusion in Hearthstone rehab), but instead I’m going to stay true to my role as a dues-paying son of Odin and give the nod to The Banner Saga. This wonderfully drawn tale of Vikings, giants, dead gods, and the end of the world is right in my aesthetic wheelhouse. In fact, before it came out, I distinctly remember Matt Gerardi emailing me and saying something to the effect of, “Hey Drew, do you want to review this game? It’s kind of like XCOM with Vikings, and it looks like it’s right in your aesthetic wheelhouse.” The only thing that’s missing, in my opinion, is a dirge-like black metal soundtrack. Indeed, the whole game is something of a throwback, both in terms of art style and game flow—the latter of which often resembles The Oregon Trail, albeit with spears and rock monsters. The structure of the game can be unforgiving—if you start off playing the wrong way, chances are you and your people will be strewn out on the road, carrion for vultures, long before you reach the endgame. My advice? Hail and kill.
My husband doesn’t really like video games, but I found him actually encouraging me to play more South Park: The Stick Of Truth. The game is so funny that it’s as enjoyable to watch as it is to play and absolutely filled with hilarious, quotable lines. Video game veterans might appreciate the game more because of its spot-on spoofing of Fable, Skyrim, Fire Emblem, and Dead Space, but serious South Park fans will find just as many inside jokes. And thankfully, the combat and other design elements are easy to pick up on quickly. Plus, whenever you fail to grasp a concept in the tutorials, you’re rewarded with some mocking from Cartman.
I’m still in the middle of a one-man protest against the new game consoles until I can order pizza with one of them, so I’m stuck with my tattered old Xbox 360 for the foreseeable future. Luckily, every major release over the last year has also come out on the 360, so I haven’t really missed out on much. I loved Titanfall and tolerated the twist ending of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, but the 2014 game that I’ve enjoyed the most so far is easily Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. Based on PopCap’s fantastic tower defense series, it brilliantly transforms the class-based gameplay of Battlefield into a game that’s so cute and kid-friendly it would make Nintendo jealous. One team is the plants, which includes standard soldier Peashooters, medic Sunflowers, and a Venus flytrap-like Chomper that can kill enemies in one hit. Meanwhile, the zombies have their own versions of classic shooter archetypes like engineers and beefy bullet-sponges that mow down plants. On top of that, each type of zombie and plant can be customized with wacky unlockable skins and hats. The load times on the 360 version are atrocious, but the game itself makes up for it by being way more fun—and more charming—than almost any other shooter.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Okay, that might be a slight overstatement—the creation of The Sims is up there, as is, you know, birth. But KKH is an intuitive, ridiculously engaging iOS game that has your heroine working her way up Hollywood’s food chain to become a star of the glitterati like Kim herself. As this is my primary life goal, this works very well for me: Straightforward prompts encourage me to change my outfit, style my hair, put on makeup, and befriend Kim Kardashian. Instead of coins, bundles of cash pop up whenever I complete a task, reflecting our economy’s inflationary state. When you’re not earning cash, you can network, flirt, work on your charm, or impress Kim herself—truly, the only skills that matter in my life.
I’ve enjoyed Monument Valley more than anything else released this year. Play is simple: A princess silently putters through a series of M.C. Escher-esque towers that the player must move and tilt to form impossible pathways for her to cross. The puzzles themselves are not difficult. Only a handful late in the game require any degree of fuss. But solving one still provokes a thrill—if not from hard-won accomplishment, then from the joy of coaxing this little world into new and strange shapes. I think this would be an impossible accomplishment if it weren’t for the gorgeous art direction. The M.C. Escher structures are built up with qualities of Winsor McCay dreamscapes and Persian architecture, all folded together with a soft twilight color palette. One puzzle late in the game begins as a compact lacquer-box structure. As you progress, the box continuously opens and unfurls into an elaborate, multi-level landscape, like a flowering tea ball steeped in water—or a Magic Grow Capsule if you’re feeling less romantic. That level summarizes the spirit of the whole game. It’s a seemingly simple little thing that expands as you play, turning into something unexpected and mesmerizing.
Tomodachi Life got a lot of bad press this spring over a PR snafu regarding Nintendo’s initial response to calls for the inclusion of same-sex relationships in this odd life simulation. Still, it was a game that had been on my radar for over a year and was just too delightfully quirky to ignore. It hasn’t let me down yet. Tomodachi Life is a game where my college writing partner performs an entire rock opera about the life of Batgirl, where my vegan buddies do happy dances for bacon, and where Shaquille O’Neal asks me to be his best friend, all without my telling any of them what to do. (Okay, I wrote the lyrics to the Batgirl musical, but the rest was all independent of my control.) And within all of this, Tomodachi Life is the one and only place my transgender friends can do mundane everyday activities while always being treated as their proper gender. No more annoying “dude”s and “ma’am”s from strangers. I told the game that my friend Lexi was a “she,” and now everybody accepts it, which is frankly a much bigger deal to me at the moment than who can marry whom. Plus, I finally have that disco ball in my bedroom, and yes, I get it now, mom, it’s very distracting and probably hard to sleep with. I’ll get rid of it now, jeez.
Nothing else has grabbed me quite like Nidhogg. Mark “Messhof” Essen’s masterful meld of fencing and football is everything I want out of a multiplayer game. It’s simple enough to be immediately accessible but hides a deeper well of strategy and technique below the surface. It has a minimalist look that tempers its gore and brutality with hyper-colored abstraction, making its bloodstained rooms look more like the set of Double Dare than some blood sport arena. Best of all, matches are prolonged periods of unrelenting tension, owed to the fragility of your character (one blow from your opponent’s rapier and you’re turned into a pile of goo) and the constant, immediate threat of the other player, who, when you’re on offense, stands defiantly at the other end of a hallway waiting to run you through—a reoccurring, tough-as-nails human boss fight. I can confidently say it’s the only video game other than Dance Central that turns me into a sweaty mess, and Nidhogg does it without asking me to get up and work my ass off for the camera.
The farther into 2014 we get, the more I realize what a juggernaut 2013 was. Last year was glutted with great games, and this year has been tame by comparison. While there are fewer peaks, there are also fewer valleys. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is easy to overlook because of 2014’s even keel. It’s the second sequel to a Final Fantasy game whose legacy is muddy at best. Lightning also arrived on aging machines, but it isn’t a technical showcase like the best late-era games, or like its genetic forebears Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy XII. Beneath that unassuming facade, though, is a fascinating game about coming to terms with mortality. As gaudy and ostentatious as it is mechanically pleasurable, nothing else has sunk its teeth into me like this so far this year.
Because I apparently didn’t get my fill of existential dread from 2014’s half season of Mad Men, I spent many, many hours this year playing and replaying Kentucky Route Zero: Act III. If the game, with its bold visual aesthetic and masterful storytelling, can be categorized, it’s a point-and-click mystery. But it’s also so much more than that. It’s a methodical tale of spirituality, a meditation on mortality and friendship, and an exploration of the soullessness of modern labor. Like some of the best art out there, it’s both beautiful and haunting, an escapist fantasy that’s also achingly real.
Despite the mockery I will likely receive from fellow Gameological compatriots and maybe two or three commenters who know the drill, I gotta go with Dark Souls II. I mean, I love that game (and all its predecessors, and I talk about them all the time, hence the long-running joke), and it dropped in the middle of March with nothing else of note competing for market share in the game-space of my brain. So at this point, I’ve played for about 150 hours, which is approximately 126 more hours than D-Day. But that was a foregone conclusion, given my insatiable appetite for playing a game where you die all the time. What’s really surprised me about Dark Souls II is how it continues to surprise me. Playing New Game Plus—a harder version of the game to play after you finish it the first time—I found a whole bunch of new enemies put there for my devious pleasure, plus more items and armor sets that were previously unavailable. The game has become a playground for my inner medieval enthusiast.
Nostalgia in gaming often feels like an excuse for laziness from developers. And so I initially expected Super Time Force to rest on its laurels and play like an ironic tongue-in-cheek update of Super Contra. What I found was that Super Time Force does play a lot like Super Contra, but with a charming new twist that elevates the crude 2-D shooting action past the boundaries of mere nostalgia. With a tap of a button, players can pause the game, rewind it like an old VHS tape, and then send one of several gun-toting squad members through a time-travel loophole. It doesn’t erase your previous self, meaning you can fight alongside copies of yourself. You can pull off this trick up to 30 times, filling the screen with dozens of identical clones. And much like last year’s Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, it also works as an over-the-top ’80s-era parody, complete with characters like Jean Rambois (the French version of Rambo), a skateboarding dinosaur, and best of all, the bazooka-shooting Jef Leppard.