Last week, the Gameological staff members came together to share a few of their favorite games of the year with us. (You can find part one of the roundup here, and part two over here.) But one of the most important parts of this joyful annual tradition is this article you’re currently reading: the special “Games You Liked” edition of Keyboard Geniuses where we celebrate the games that captured the hearts and minds of you, the beloved Gamological readership. We’ve selected a few of our favorite responses—out of the many, many wonderful comments you left us—and collected them here.
Merlin The Tuna—Undertale
I liked Undertale because it cared first. It didn’t think that I was deeply invested in it just because I bought it and started playing. Instead, it gave me total freedom to either heal its world or tear it apart, then did everything it could to win my heart.
That borderline-desperate need to be loved erupts from every little corner of the game. It’s most obvious in the more overt whimsy—a depressed ghost, silly puns, spaghetti gags, robot game shows—or when characters try to dissuade and forgive any of your past violence. But it also shines through in the depth and specificity of the world. Every person and place is full of life and character, whether its your excitable racing snail or the cozy Snowdin Librarby. There’s joy in meeting all of the friendly faces throughout the underground, and delving deeper consistently rewards you with more of the tale’s history and heartache.
But despite all that, it truly lets you choose whether to care about anyone in its world, and it responds (sometimes in delightfully devious ways) with honest, reasonable consequences rather than simply abstracting morality down to good points and evil points. It isn’t testing your morality so much as it’s testing its own ability to win you over, whether it can burrow deep enough into your heart to make you care about even the most wretched creature in the underground.
And yes. Yes it can.
Venerable Monk—Affordable Space Adventures
I liked Affordable Space Adventures because it made me feel like part of a fourth-string Starfleet crew. The game has little to do with seeking out new life and new civilizations, but it absolutely nails exploring strange new worlds in the same fashion as the crew of the Starship Enterprise, or at least an away team on a shuttle. While each of the three players has their own type of controller and distinct job (helm, science officer, or engineer), the challenges in the game are designed so that you cannot succeed without good communication. You’ll undoubtedly find yourself speaking with the terminology and cadence of your favorite captain (Picard, always Picard), and confirming orders as soon as you complete them. It simultaneously captures the feel of working on the bridge and highlights just how inefficient vocal commands are for this type of work.
I liked Darkest Dungeon because it added a simple yet compelling wrinkle to one of the oldest game genres. For those not in the know, it goes like this: What if your party of adventurers suffered mental/emotional damage (in addition to the physical danger) when they ventured into a dungeon? Sure, they might have cleared a route and returned home with treasures aplenty, but your crusader is acting like a gibbering loon and your occultist is unnaturally obsessed with corpses. Everything about the design—the woodcut art aesthetic, the narrator’s dire pronouncements (example: “There can be no hope in this hell”), and the ominous music—gives life to the dreadful plague-era setting of the game.
I liked Off-Peak because it knows how to play with scale. The short game takes place in a train station filled with weirdos and curios. There are loads of hipster nonsense that you could be forgiven for writing off, as the game is an exercise in its creator collecting his presumed interests like board-game bars, vinyl sales, and foreign movie posters. It works, though, because of how specific the assemblage is.
Most excitingly, the train station is vast beyond any normal scale, and Off-Peak tweaks those dimensions to great effect. The opening scene of the 10-story doors to the station is an instant classic, and the game plays with the size of everything within to create a singularly strange setting. Staircases are impossibly tall. Tiny people play massive pianos. In one memorable bit, there’s a humongous train terminal that contains only a single man break-dancing. I’ve never encountered a game so keenly aware of how the size of surroundings can affect the feeling of a scene, which makes Off-Peak a joy to explore.
TheSingingBrakeman—Super Mario Maker
I liked Super Mario Maker because it let me learn about what makes great games work and made me feel like a part of an excellent community. For all the (deserved) criticism its creators get, the sheer amount of creativity on display is utterly enchanting. I enjoy classic Mario levels, and that’s my primary focus as a creator, but some of the incredible creations people have made are staggering. Even “don’t touch you controller” levels, or musical levels, or puzzle levels all have their place. It places a burden on the player to curate his or her own lists of favorites, but once you have a pretty good stable in place, you can just hop on the game and either find a few lovely new jolts of aesthetic and mechanical joy or find inspiration to enhance your own creations. Figuring out why one course works and one doesn’t leads you to looking at so many games this way: What could improve this experience for me, and how can I convey that to the creator? It really opened up a world for me.
I liked Nuclear Throne because it made my reflexes feel young again. At its core, it marries the now ubiquitous rogue-like structure of Spelunky or The Binding Of Isaac (procedural level generation, permanent deaths) with the twin-stick shooter-genre of yore—think Smash TV or Robotron, if your memory reaches that far back. It then adds the Vlambeer trademark qualities: Simple but expressive pixel art, fine-tuned control, and a lot of screen shake.
My description might make it sound like Nuclear Throne is a Binding Of Isaac-rip off, but it’s really not. The most important differences are speed and a reliance on skill. You do unlock new characters but no new weapons or items. The only resource you can rely on that changes from your first playthrough to your last is your own personal mastery. And you will need that, because Nuclear Throne is brutal, and fast, and it will kill you. The fact that you will probably start up another game seconds later, though, means it does everything right and it’s fair, the most important thing a game of this sort can be.
Once you’ve got it, it becomes magical. I love how Nuclear Throne makes me watch in awe as my rusty reflexes come back from retirement to do one last job—and another one after that, and then another…
I liked Codenames because it reveals how our minds work. Vlaada Chvatil’s design seems like a natural extension of Password, yet it is so much more. Relying on the connections our mind makes, the game becomes a Rorschach test for people’s tastes, experiences, and memories. Simple rules and near infinite replay only add to the joy of getting to know your fellow players better.
Amiabella—The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
I liked The Witcher III because it trusts its portrayal of a morally grey world. Games too often present black-and-white choices with clear incentives for each end of the spectrum, while the middle ground is left for the indecisive. The Witcher III avoids that dichotomy in the way it establishes Velen, Novigrad, and the Skellige Isles as places of both beauty and decay, much like the multi-faceted characters and their strengths and flaws. Thus, decisions don’t boil down to clear either/or scenarios. The middle ground is the only ground, and players might feel shitty no matter the choice.
The Bloody Baron questline in particular exemplifies the game’s penchant for complex situations and difficult choices. He ruins the lives of those around him, and yet he shows remorse for his actions. Clearly he loves his family, but does that love make up for the hurt he causes? There’s no “right” answer. Instead, players choose from shades of grey, and the ultimate choice doesn’t result in a clear, tangible reward. Instead, The Witcher III lets players ruminate on those choices and how they affect the overall portrayal of the world. That rumination is its own perverse, twisted idea of a reward.