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The Year in Arts | video games

Five takeaways from the year in gaming

“Cannon Brawl’’ by Turtle Sandbox Games.

The Shovel Knight character.

The nice thing about writing about video games once a week — as opposed, to, say, five times a week — is that you’re forced to pick and choose your spots. By the time Sunday rolls around, I know with certainty that the most buzzworthy titles released that week will have already been picked over by a million outlets, so instead I try to focus on the quirky, the weird, the instances in which gaming breaks out and has something to say about other forms of art.

It makes for a very enjoyable gig. It also makes it hard to make any grand, sweeping statements about the state of gaming over the past year. Instead, I’m going to offer up five semi-random things 2014 has taught me about gaming.

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Retro done really, really well is amazing. Retro fever has infected the indie-game world. Everywhere you look, you see pixelated graphics and chiptune sounds imported from the 1980s and 1990s. This is part homage, since there’s a huge chunk of gamers who came of game-age during this period, and part expedience, since these sorts of graphics and sound don’t require as much time and technical expertise to create. A lot of retro-flavored games end up being a bit superficial, especially once the initial gimmick wears off.

Not so with “Shovel Knight” by Yacht Club Games, possibly the most wonderful, fun, authentic dive into retro-nostalgia produced by anyone yet. Every aspect of it is perfectly tuned, and not just aesthetically: the gameplay feels both fresh and thoroughly steeped in the developers’ “Super Mario Bros.”/“Metroid”/“Castlevania”/etc. influences. This was a real raising of the bar, and hopefully other nostalgia-fueled developers will take note.

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Gaming isn’t immune to reactionary politics. Luckily, GamerGate has fallen out of the headlines, back to the under-the-radar online redoubts where it belongs. But even though it was an embarrassing episode that probably set back gaming as a mainstream pursuit, it was interesting to follow.

When you stripped away the flimsy facade of complaints about “ethics in gaming journalism” (a phrase that became a deserved punch line-meme), GamerGate’s proponents were making an argument straight from far-right playbooks — that the “traditional” (gaming) culture was moving too fast, that minorities were being granted special benefits and fawning treatment, partly as a result of assistance from their complicit, overly “PC” majority allies. This was a decades-long culture-war skirmish wrapped in new packaging — nothing more.

Blowing up things is fun. “Cannon Brawl” by Turtle Sandbox Games was not the biggest or prettiest or most sophisticated game of the year. But it was one of the best examples of how smart developers working within a very simple gameplay rubric — in this case, build weapons and shields with the aim of blowing up your opponent’s castle while defending your own — can conjure magic seemingly out of nowhere, and that’s why it’s one of the 2014 games I see myself playing the most in 2015.

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What’s funny is that the more I’ve played, the more I’ve noticed its flaws. There are various balancing issues, for one thing, the AI is dumb as nails, and there are some issues with the online matchmaking system. And yet this simply hasn’t deterred me from dumping more hours into it; the core gameplay is that fun, that frenetic, that replete with interesting tactical conundrums. I see signs in its mostly empty multiplayers quarters that “Cannon Brawl” hasn’t quite enjoyed the launch it deserved, but I’m hoping more people pick it up in the year to come.

The roguelike craze is here to stay. “Roguelikes,” a loosely defined genre that usually involves randomly generated levels, high difficulty, and steep consequences for losing, have been churned out at a steady pace in recent years. They can be seen as a counterpoint to the slickest, glossiest AAA titles, many of which have a gentler learning curve and have their quirkier edges sanded off long before they’re released (roguelikes revel in quirkiness). “Dungeons of the Endless,” a beguiling, genre-mashing sci-fi roguelike from Amplitude Studios, was among the strongest released this year, and it’s a sign of gaming’s vitality as a medium that this punishing style of game is experiencing such a boom at the moment.

The “notgame” debate is over, and it didn’t end up mattering. I’ve mentioned on a couple occasions the debate going on in some quarters over “notgames” — games that don’t have win conditions, points, or the other accoutrements of “traditional” games. I’m not convinced this distinction really matters.

Sure, I love games where the player can win or rack up high scores, but this year I also greatly enjoyed the trippy and evocative interactive sci-fi story “Qora” by Curve Digital, and was fascinated by “Frail Shells,” a short game-jam title by Taylor Bai-Woo. And I’m looking forward to playing “Elegy for a Dead World,” an upcoming fiction-writing title by Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal. All of these games have garnered press interest and devoted fans or fans-to-be. The fact is, gaming’s big enough for all sorts of different takes on the medium and its parameters — and that’s something all gamers should celebrate.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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