Welcoming 2014

Happy 2014, everyone! I hope you all had a merry Christmas!

This is the time of year when many of the major gaming outlets traditionally reflect on the “best” games of the past twelve months. Unfortunately, I’m not really in a position to do the same. I haven’t exactly kept myself up-to-speed on the latest and greatest of the mainstream AAA titles. I’ve barely even scratched the surface of the newest iteration of Pokemon. I haven’t laid a finger on games like The Last of Us or Beyond: Two Souls. My copy of Tomb Raider is still unwrapped, sitting on my living room table. I did happen to squeeze in a playthrough of Bioshock Infinite across those rare nights, after getting home from a full day at the office, when I managed to get my kid to bed, clean up the destruction left in his wake, and keep my eyes open for another couple of hours, despite losing the valuable sleep that would inevitably be interrupted by that same kid at the crack of dawn the following morning.

I’ve recently become quite the coffee enthusiast. This is no coincidence.

In fact, parenthood has changed a lot of my gaming patterns over the years. The marathon gaming to which I’ve previously been so accustomed is a practice that tends to demand undivided attention – something that has rapidly become a luxury in the face of a growing child’s spontaneous needs. It doesn’t matter if you’re the carry in the middle of a crucial teamfight: when the kid’s keeled over saying he’s gotta poop, you stop everything and take him to poop. With that said, mobile gaming has been my go-to diversion – especially games featuring asynchronous multiplayer.

Furthermore, why do most of the highly acclaimed console games have to be so aggressive and violent? It’s become more and more clear to me that despite how much the AAA industry wants you to believe they’ve grown up, they still insist on slathering their narrative profundity with heaping helpings of mass murder. It’s no wonder I gotta wait for my kid to go to bed. So my Xbox doesn’t see much play nowadays, save for the occasional Super Street Fighter IV or Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 lab work, or some impromptu Dance Central with my music-loving son.

My PC, on the other hand, saw a lot more of me this year. Indies and smaller studios are really hitting their stride, providing those quirky, niche experiences that just wouldn’t be lucrative enough to justify a console release. Gone Home was an incredibly atmospheric game that demonstrated some novel storytelling techniques. The Stanley Parable was both thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud hilarious. And I’d dare say that Spy Party, which just entered open beta last year, presents the most creative competitive multiplayer premise of the past decade. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sheer fun I had playing titles like FTL, Don’t Starve, Leap Day, Papers, Please, and the retail release (finally!) of Desktop Dungeons.

I haven’t even considered purchasing the newest generation of consoles. There’s just nothing there for me at this point. And seeing how almost all of the acclaimed console titles of past years eventually migrated to the Steam catalog, I’ve concluded that the PC is quickly reclaiming the position as the dominant platform once again. Valve further confirmed that optimistic sentiment with their recent announcement of the Steam Machine.

However, I did decide to snag a Wii U not too long ago. Maybe the impulse was just another byproduct of fatherhood – Nintendo’s products are so much more family-friendly. Maybe it’s also that I simply like the fact that the console can be so unlike its peers – which is really the reason I think it has failed to be successful thus far: the Wii U is not just another build target. It demands out-of-the-box thinking to really take advantage of its strengths, and a game that truly manages to do that will not be portable to other platforms. So again, it falls on Nintendo to fulfill the ambition of its own hardware with first-party titles. Nintendo Land (which my son loves, by the way) showcases a lot of the neat things the gamepad can do, but only in bite-sized chunks of gameplay. Pikmin 3 was a step in the right direction, but I get the feeling there’s still so much untapped potential there.

In the meantime, while I wait for those first-party gems to emerge, the Wii U is also doubling as my Skylanders console of choice. Yeah, yeah – I’m ashamed to admit it, but that Activision cash cow has been my guilty pleasure as of late. It’s a solid game. And attractive, collectible toys tied to persistent characters with unique gameplay is a potent cocktail for addition. The game also happens to be just simple enough for my son to enjoy on easy mode, making it a great introductory co-op bonding experience. But make no mistake – when I buy Skylander toys, they’re for me.

While I’m on the subject of Nintendo consoles, I should also mention that I’ve played Animal Crossing: New Leaf on my 3DS almost every day since its launch. If time investment is any indication, it would be my game of the year without a doubt. The game hardly does much different from its preceding iterations, but in the wake of the social gaming collapse and in the midst of the present-day free-to-play environment, it’s a welcome divergence from the monetize-everything mentality that is constantly blurring the lines between pay and play.

Of course, I can’t forget about the tabletop games. The growth of my cardboard collection has already outpaced that of my digital one. While Android: Netrunner continues to be my mainstay (at least when I get the opportunity to play with someone equally enthused), I’m consistently pleased with the innovations that permeate the genre. You’re sure to hear a lot more about that in the months to come.

Most of all, though, this past year is most notable to me as being the year of reaffirming my dedication to fatherhood. I’m coming up on five months as a stay-at-home dad. It is challenging, exhausting, and often frustrating. I haven’t yet had the amount of time I’d hoped I’d have to pursue my own creative ambitions. But there is nothing more rewarding to me than investing that precious time and energy into raising my son, and when it all comes down to it, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else in the world.

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