Favourite Games of 2014 (Part 1)

In gaming terms, 2014 was primarily significant as the year in which I transitioned away from my long-serving PS3 as a primary gaming hub (with the very notable exception I’ll explain shortly). This was not a deliberate change motivated by technology concerns, but rather one that slowly came to reflect an increasingly stable understanding of what I’m actually looking for when I play games.

Please note that this list is about favourite games played during 2014, not games released during 2014.

Game of the Year: Minecraft

This is the typical story of a Minecraft holdout who tries the game grudgingly but then immediately loves it. In late December, 2013, I had a two-week holiday break and plenty of free time. The PS3 edition of the game had just been released and I decided it was finally time to give it a try. Purists scoff at the console editions but, for me, the inclusion of a tutorial and simplified crafting probably made the difference. For the record, I diligently moved on to the more complete experience of Minecraft on the Mac and even put dozens of hours into the heavily-modded format many hardcore gamers consider the “true” presentation of the game. (An un-modded playthrough on version 1.7.4, detailed as a postscript to this post, was ultimately the most memorable.)

What makes this my favourite game of 2014 is, first and foremost, how comprehensively it monopolized my time during the months of January and February. Perhaps more insidiously, it induced me to lurk and think on the periphery of an exploding game culture unlike any I’d ever witnessed. As others have noted, it seems that many Minecraft players spend as much time watching as they do playing. Most appear to approach the game as it was intended, a sort of randomly-generated fantasy adventure, but there are numerous other types of content and communication that the game allows (and by “allows” I don’t mean "supports," I mean the game itself is philosophically resistant to the idea of a canonical use case). This, ultimately, is what makes Minecraft so important.

Some players have created a kind of scripted content using the game to set a scene and tell a story; some of it is juvenile or amateurish but significant for being perhaps the most inexpensive method of writing, performing, and producing your own animated series. Others have spawned various permutations of competitive play and have even reproduced other genres within the game (puzzlers, platformers, shooters). An even larger set of players fall into the interesting phenomenon of the “builders,” which is to say Minecraft players who don’t really play the game as such, instead choosing to interact with the Minecraft engine as a tool for the generation of AutoCAD-like architectural renderings. All of these different applications exist more or less happily as what has become, within one single game, a youth craze as ubiquitous, bewildering, and grief-inducing to adults as the sum total of the entire video game industry was during the 1980s and 1990s.

All of this led me to start thinking of Minecraft chiefly as an entertainment platform. I tend to think this is what has been missed by many who have commented on Microsoft’s acquisition. Has the game made a lot of money? Yes, an unfathomable amount. Is there a conceivable business model to be had surrounding game distribution and monetization of DLC-like content? Probably, but the Minecraft community is by now so entrenched and PR-savvy that Microsoft will be unlikely to pursue this to its logical conclusion. However speculatively, I can’t help think that what Microsoft actually bought was a stake in YouTube or, more simply, maybe just a stake in all the zillions of petabytes of data flying around that is somehow associated with the game. In this context I could see Minecraft being a more sensible acquisition for a Facebook-like company that exists mainly to monetize personal information, but for Microsoft, with a completely different business model, the acquisition actually becomes more interesting rather than less interesting…

Postscript: a Story About Hubris

Minecraft is also the source of my single favourite gaming anecdote, a collision of gameplay and philosophy that I employ when describing the game to non-players.

I think the core Minecraft game has something chilling to say about the inherent solitude and frailty of being in the world. There is also an equally interesting secondary narrative about the possibility (or impossibility) of redeeming this same world, even though it is manifestly inscrutable and sometimes malevolent. You might appear to succeed chiefly through ingenuity and tool-building, but just as often it will simply be through dumb luck, such as accidentally stumbling across your own in-game house on a lost, panic-stricken run through a forest at nightfall as monsters begin to stir.

Bear with me when I say that, during one playthrough, I was pretty darn pleased that, over the course of several real-world days, I had moved myself and my belongings from an initial hut-like structure to an elaborate island treehouse unreachable by monsters from the mainland. The treehouse had spiral staircases and elevated walkways. It had furniture, stained glass windows, bookcases, art, and music.

All of this was tremendously hard work. I completely deforested the shoreline opposite my island. I spent long days and nights extracting and hauling every last block of natural resources from a nearby cave. As long as I could return safely at night to the comfort of my island, I didn’t care.

Later, I decided to build a brick-encased lava well to fuel the immense amount of smelting I needed to do in order to advance in the game. (The punchline of this story should now be obvious to anyone who understands Minecraft’s peculiar thermodynamics).

One beautiful sunset, returning home from the mainland in a boat, I saw something unusual as my island came into view. At first it appeared to be a software glitch of some kind, but soon I realized it wasn’t: my treehouse was on fire. Lava, you see, has a chance of igniting any blocks within a certain radius. I frantically tried to extinguish the flames with my trusty bucket but, being built primarily of wood, the treehouse and my dozens of hours of careful, patient play were soon up in smoke.

And that, my friends, was the only time a video game ever taught me anything about hubris.