Papers, Please. Everybody likes to talk about how big-budget AAA titles force us into difficult moral decisions, but realistically they almost never do. You do the bad thing to get to the next cutscene, that’s it, and your only real choice is to stop playing (I remember when people were saying that Spec Ops: The Line was so upsetting that it became unplayable past a certain point, like this was some sort of feature), and that’s not necessarily a problem with big-budget gaming per se but it’s definitely something that sort of game doesn’t do well. Papers, Please does this very well, because the choices you make are entirely your own and do not impact your advancement in the game: you can grow increasingly corrupt and keep your family alive, or stay human and watch them gradually starve/freeze/die of illness, or you can try to float between the two (I adopted “let my elderly uncle die off to keep my wife and child alive” as a strategy) but whatever you choose, you can continue to advance through the game stages and grasp at the faint straws of hope it provides. It’s remarkably elegant in simulating the demands of a tyranny upon you, the average Joe Citizen.
Monaco. The single-player version of this heist game is a fun puzzle-solver with myriad ways to solve each level (since all of the eight characters have their own special powers which let you waltz through some of the various challenges faster, but have to be normal at everything else), but it’s the multiplayer that really shines because it turns heist into farce so fast. At first I was trying to be all Thomas Crown on multiplayer levels, but watching everybody else just go hogwild and alerting the cops turned it into this weird slapstick farce of a thing which was ridiculously fun. I bought Payday 2 a while back when it was on sale. Haven’t played it once, because Monaco is just so good.
Rogue Legacy. This was my roguelike obsession of the year, a semi-rogue platform game with permanent leveling as you send descendant after descendant into the castle of death to kill the monsters. I am 4000 years into this family’s history and haven’t finished it yet, but I’m optimistic it should only take me another 1500 years’ worth or so of dead heirs. Great controls, great leveling design, great monsters, great everything. Until that Binding of Isaac sequel comes out this is my jam.
Sid Meier’s Civilization V: Brave New World. Okay technically this is just an expansion to a game from 2010 (good lord I have been playing Civ V for three years, what the hell) but BNW completes Civ V on so many levels so I am cheating a bit and listing it here: it makes diplomacy exceptionally more important (meaning all those wars you launch suddenly matter a lot more), changes the cultural victory condition to something much less twinkish but still achievable if you dedicate yourself to it (and the tourism mechanic’s benefits to trade are both thematic and an interesting motivator to pursue the victory condition), makes the trade mechanic both more powerful and more vulnerable simultaneously (sacking enemy trade routes and protecting your own becomes an actual thing), makes Great People much more useful, and revamps social policy for the better. It refines the “peaceful builder” aspect of Civ V while also making it more challenging, and nothing impresses me so much as when games, years after their initial release, continue to innovate and change. Sadly, this is probably the last expansion before Civ VI.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. A bargain-level FPS turns out to be my favorite shooter of the year? Well, it was. More critical types have applauded how the game’s use of an unreliable narrator makes it more fun and clever – which it does – but more importantly than that, it grounds the immense amount of action you undergo as you shoot the bejesus out of seemingly every last cowboy in the Wild West, whether they were good guys or bad guys. And the shooting is excellent, and the level design is rock solid. Really, Gunslinger serves as a reminder that designing a top-notch first person shooter is not really all that hard, which is why so many failures in this regard are so depressing.
Next five: Don’t Starve, Spelunky HD, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Ironclad Tactics, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. (That last would probably have made it on the list if I hadn’t started playing it only on December 30/had finished it already.)