Favorite thing of 2014: Sing Me To Sleep
Nothing that I played in 2014 made me as happy as Sing Me To Sleep. I have a weakness for worlds that are enjoyable to explore, and this game has one of the most fascinating I've ever traveled through. It's littered with enormous artifacts, mostly indifferent to your existence. You scramble over these structures, braving the sharpening drone of the music, to find a vantage point that lets you more easily penetrate the fog that surrounds everything, and gain a sense of what's "forward". And then venture forth, traversing alien monolith after monolith. Perhaps my favorite thing about this game is that it's just a demo, and that at some point in the next couple years I'll be able to sink more time into this world.
Favorite Boss: Rhythm Doctor
This stage was only added to an updated build of the game (after the IGF build). The boss sits after only the second stage of the game, and the player has just barely started learning the rules of the game. This boss is great because more than any other stage in the game, it forces the player to internalize the single rule so far presented: press space on the seventh beat. I failed repeatedly at this stage until replaying the game on a different computer. Doing that made me re-encounter the tutorial, particularly the instructions to press space on the seventh beat. Against the boss, the rhythm is disrupted in ways that make the game feel glitchy, but if you can mentally keep the rhythm going, you won't fail. As a demonstration of truly understanding the game's rules, it's perfect.
Favorite Vignette: Chitin Creek
Chitin Creek has an impressive economy of elements. This often occurs because the game is incomplete, or certain aspects of the game received less attention than others. That's not the case here. Chitin Creek uses that economy intentionally to emphasize what it does have. In terms of visuals, there are only a few unique sprites in the game, so the player is increasingly aware of when those sprites change, or when a brand new sprite appears in a particularly pivotal scene. In terms of audio, the game begins in complete silence, so that when one of the two sounds is being played, it has profound impact, especially at the end of the game. And finally (and most importantly), the narrative is similarly austere. It focuses on just one thread of a story, and sees it to completion. I don't know what the creator meant to convey with the story, but it's allegorical in a way I don't get to see often, and I've fallen in love with the game because of it.
Favorite Narrator: Curtain
Favorite here is a bit odd of a word to use, but I think it's still appropriate. Curtain is a game about an abusive relationship, and a key theme throughout is the lack (and presence) of escape. The narrator's voice is that of your partner's, and you are never out of her sight. She's in every room, and almost every item you inspect causes her to say something. Juxtaposing her narration over the more neutral second person writing representing your own voice develops the atmosphere of the apartment really well. The narrator really makes Curtain what it is.
Favorite "post-game" experience: Dust City
There are times where my vocabulary for games fails me. For lack of a better term, Dust City's "primary game" is excellent, and deserving of attention, but what made this so memorable is what happens when you think you're done with the game. What I'm calling a "post-game" here. At some point you run out of things to do in the game, but you're in possession of some items whose purpose you haven't discovered yet. It's hard to say more about it without spoiling the discovery, but what comes next elevated this game above other horror games. When I'm playing an ostensibly scary game, there are limits to what it can do to invoke fear. Dust City's post-game is effective because it violates my expectations of what a game can do, and it violates my expectations of where the game is allowed to be. After solving those last few puzzles, any safety I felt about the limits of the game was gone, and that was a wonderfully unsettling feeling.
Favorite Creator: Daniel Linssen
I'm putting HopSlide in here as a placeholder, because I thought the game was brilliant, but this award here is for having a generally excellent output the entire year. He also capped off the year winning best overall game in Ludum Dare 31 with Birdsong. He also won #1 overall in LD29 for The Sun and Moon, #3 overall in LD30 for the aforementioned HopSlide, and in between all of those released RogueLight. Now he's working on a game about wandering the desert wiht your camel and starving and I'm psyched about it.