Dear Stephen, Jenn, and Chris,
2014 was a difficult, exhausting, and painful year for games culture—not to mention the rest of the world—and often, what I found myself wanting the most from games was rest. There’s a long tradition of games that drown out the harsh glare of reality with adrenaline-soaked gunplay, repetitive gratification loops, or hugely immersive worlds where you can lose five hours in the blink of an eye. But I didn’t just want games that were escapist; I wanted games that were restorative.
Here’s my Top 10, just to get that out of the way:
10. Mario Kart 8
9. Dragon Age: Inquisition
8. Game of Thrones
7. Shovel Knight
4. Everything You Swallow Will One Day Come Up Like a Stone
3. Broken Age
2. The Last of Us: Left Behind
1. Kentucky Route Zero, Part III
Let’s start with my game of the year, Kentucky Route Zero. (Parts I and II were released in 2013; the antepenultimate Part III came out this year.) Ostensibly the journey of one old man—and one old dog—to deliver a package via the elusive, eponymous highway, Kentucky Route Zero is a habitable dream set to a soundtrack of shimmering bluegrass and the endless ASMR idling of an old truck engine.
The game’s blend of surrealism and Americana has sometimes been compared to David Lynch films, though it contains none of their inexplicable horror and dread. For me, it was a bit more like playing a Haruki Murakami novel, if Haruki Murakami lived in rural America and liked to take peyote and drive trucks down lonely country roads at night. Its extraordinary tales of lost highways, ghosts who love tabletop games, and lost boys with giant eagles for older brothers aren’t meant to crawl inside your nerves. The game produces no anxiety, offers no grind, no death, no punishments, no jump scares. It’s a game that feels akin to meditation, that makes space in the mundane for you to dream the fantastic and asks you to trust it, to slow down, to let go.
The few negative reviews I’ve seen of Kentucky Route Zero came from people who felt frustrated by its languid pace—like little ludic Lisa Simpsons trying to earn an A in gaming, they wanted the game to go faster, to unlock its secrets and check off its boxes as quickly as possible. You can play the game this way, of course, but it’s a little bit like performing a speedrun of a meditation class. Kentucky Route Zero is where achievements go to die.
For some players, this might be its own sort of challenge—but one that the game rewards. Slowing down, being present, and being at rest is its own kind of work, and just as necessary to our lives as the kind we do for a paycheck. How many games tell us that?
Because mainstream games are often not just fantasies of power and violence, but fantasies of perpetual motion, breathless sprints from one battle, one quest, one objective to the next. They reward not only impersonal violence but the sort of obsession and urgency that can so easily infect our work and our personal lives in the Internet age: the sense that that there is always more to do, that the numbers can (and must) always go higher, that stopping is a kind of failure. When I played the latest chapter of Kentucky Route Zero this fall, during a period of extreme exhaustion, I felt a knot in my mind slowly unwind, and that night I slept well for the first time in weeks. Games have often been my drug; I’d love to see more of them that want to be my medicine.
I’m glad to see Left Behind at the top of your list, Chris. Although it had its share of tense, zombie-shivving moments, this spinoff story from the zombie survival game The Last of Us offered me its own distinct form of quiet catharsis. After making burly everyman Joel the center of the previous game, Left Behind puts the teenage character Ellie at center stage and sets her loose to wander in an abandoned post-apocalyptic mall with her best friend, Riley. Hey, you know what’s more interesting than killing zombies? Watching Ellie and Riley have squirt-gun fights, read terrible jokes to each other, and tell secrets.
Or: What’s more interesting than killing zombies? The emotional backstory for why someone is killing zombies, especially when that story focuses on the qualitatively different life experiences of someone who isn’t a stereotypical action-bro. I thought of Kill Bill, Vol. 2 in the moments the game pivots away from Ellie’s ultraviolence in the present to reveal the emotional stakes that motivate it: what she lost, and why it makes her risk so much, fight so hard.
Anyone who’s played The Last of Us already knows how this story ends for Riley—not well—so the game feels like a beautiful, melancholy epitaph, a playable memory. It made me want to linger in the mall for those final moments and make them last, trying on every last mask in the Halloween store, telling every silly joke in the book, until I finally gave up and grudgingly allowed the game to progress.
Left Behind meant a lot to me as a mainstream game that not only dares to place two female characters at its center—a move that is often still depressingly perceived as controversial or economically unsound—but that also values friendship and intimacy and play as much as violence, in a way that mirrored my own experiences as a teenage girl like no other game before it. I spent a lot of my time in Left Behind in a state of disbelief—it barely seemed possible that it could exist.
When you finally see yourself and your experiences reflected in a medium you love after a lifetime of absence, you can feel a lot of things, often at the same time: confusion, relief, sadness—or even anger that you spent so long in someone else’s house of mirrors that you never even expected to see yourself. Something in your perception shifts permanently, fundamentally, and suddenly your exclusion doesn’t feel like an accident, or like background noise; it feels infuriatingly intentional and precise. Left Behind transformed me, and perhaps even radicalized me, simply by treating me like a person. Because once you get used to that, how do you go back?
I think it’s no coincidence that the two games that touched me the most were the ones that answered two questions I heard a lot from women and minorities this year: Can I stop fighting, even for a moment—can I rest? Even more importantly, can I exist?
How about you, Stephen? What defined the games that defined the year for you?