Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Top Ten Videogames of the Year, 2015

Nothing expresses how Three-Stooges-goofy I find ranking art than my own attempts to do so. After Twitter friends said they wanted to read about my Top Ten Games of the Year, I tried and failed to order them. In recent years I've tried keeping lists like this just to remind myself how great videogames are as a hobby, and every year I come up with impossible ties. 2015 was the year of the most goofy ties yet.

Below you'll find:
-A tie between Tenth, Ninth, Eighth, Seventh, and Sixth Place.
-A tie between Fifth and Fourth Place.
-A tie between Third and Second Place.
-And a game that's unlike any of the other nine, and yet I think is my favorite thing I've played this decade.

There is no objective superiority between any of the tied games. Hell, there isn't even a respectable objectivity in the games ranked above and below each other, because it turns out comparing art objectively is ridiculous. Ask me what I think of Awards Culture sometime for a fun rant.

Aside from revealing how goofy ranked lists are, this is my attempt to celebrate 2015 as a year where so many companies created such different pieces of great interactive entertainment. These were necessary escapes from some terrible health problems, and some enriching narratives that gave me great times with friends. The leaps videogames have made in narrative, in the ability to present art design, and in refining mechanics makes it one of my favorite respites. It's so great that I end the list with a bunch of Honorable Mentions. The Honorable Mentions are not ranked because Shut The Hell Up.

Tie Between #10, #9, #8, #7, & #6: Ori and the Blind Forest (Moon Studios, Microsoft Studios)
A rare Metroidvania that emphasizes platforming rather than combat. Shadow Complex and Symphony of the Night are great, but this genre usually devolves into beating on enemies with some irksome platforms in a few rooms. Ori is about movement, bouncing off walls, knocking over logs to form bridges, and even turning the few monsters in the areas as launchpads to send you further into the air. Traversal is more rewarding because you're jumping and flying through some of the most beautiful stages in any 2D game, even surpassing Dust: An Elysian Tail.

I didn't take any screenshots, so here's the Giantbomb quicklook.
Tie Between #10, #9, #8, #7, & #6: Her Story (Sam Barlow)
It walks the line between investigation and voyeurism, and does so ruthlessly. Her Story gives you hundreds of clips from interviews in a murder investigation, but you can't browse them freely - you have to type in search terms. A search for "glasses" will bring up every clip in which the subject says that word, though the game only shows you five hits. That's enough to bounce all over the timeline of the investigation, and all the revelations in the case.

You can't spoil the whole thing by learning any one future or past fact, and instead run over dozens more searches, pursue context, and fleshing out your understanding. It's a rare game where the principle mechanic is your vocabulary, and the task is to figure out the story. Like Fullbright's Gone Home, it's an approach to storytelling you can only have through the interactive medium of videogames. It also greatly helps that the clips are all live acted by Vivi Seifert, who turns in a great performance that a digitally rendered model can't yet do.

Tie Between #10, #9, #8, #7, & #6: Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (Kojima Productions, Konami)
What a titanic mixed bag. Within it are dozens of hours of stealth and inanity. For one mission I carefully sneaked behind seven different enemy guards to quietly extract a hostage. In the next, I won by tying a giant balloon to the enemy tank and sending it flying back to my home base. You can smash a stolen tank through enemy walls, or carefully stun and tranq-dart elite soldiers until you're in the enemy office.
The world is a bunch of great settings very poorly tied together, and the game runs on an inane plot that is alternately mind-bogglingly stupid in the classic Hideo Kojima fashion, or positively anemic, as a string of missions yields no plot information or cut scenes. The sniper Quiet is a microcosm of the game, for her costume is positively offensive and its shoehorned explanation doesn't even make sense with series canon, but she's legitimately the deepest character in the game and was easily my favorite companion, capable of sniper-tranqing an entire base while I stolen fuel from the loading dock. The game is a perpetually uneven balance, but what it does well is undeniably fun.

Max never sent me any screenshots of Until Dawn, so here is Austin Creed playing the prologue.
Tie Between #10, #9, #8, #7, & #6: Until Dawn (Super Massive Games)
A choose-your-own adventure Slasher Movie where you play as the cast, and can wind up getting everyone killed, or everyone to survive the night. It is intensely up my alley. Everyone is just shallow enough that you might cheer for them dying, while many are entertaining or admirable enough that you're compelled to keep them running from a masked killer or a shadowy figure that can snap steel cables with its hand. It goes through a trove of trope settings: a dark mansion, a cabin, the woods at night, caves, a sanitarium, and even a Saw-like grindhouse. Just do yourself a favor and play the theme song, "O Death," over the recaps at the beginning of each chapter. You'll thank me.

I didn't take any screenshots, so here's the opening credits of the first episode. It shows off the game's great sense of music.

Tie Between #10, #9, #8, #7, & #6: Tales from the Borderlands (Telltale Games)
With the growing genre of Telltale-like Choice Games, it was about time someone nailed a Comedy version. I like the humor of Borderlands 2, and Telltale managed to adapt their universe well to a cast of rogues stuck in a few heist plots. They drew wonderful personality out of one of the most generic enemies - in other games the LoaderBot is a fat tin can to blow up for fun, but here it's genuinely one of my favorite new characters of the year, driven to serve its owner and gradually coming to resent their give-and-take relationship. It also delves into the corporate culture of Hyperion, in the vein of Futurama's 80's Guy. Fingerguns have never been so dangerous, and the fingergun shootout is one of the funniest scenes in any medium all year.

Max also didn't send me any screenshots of Bloodborne, so here's a no-commentary run of the opening of the game. Soak up that ambiance.

Tie Between #4 & #5: Bloodborne (From Software)
One of the gaming highlights of 2015 was the week I spent watching Max Cantor play Bloodborne. I only held the controller for one minute, when Max was out of the room and enemies attacked him, and I had to navigate his character to safety. I spent the entire time screaming, and maybe hit one guy in the face, who kept chasing me until Max got back. Bloodborne doesn't let you pause, and its enemies are ruthless, some so complex that they're more comparable to playing against a skilled human at a fighting game than slashing through AI werewolves.

We spent the days figuring out enemy tells and patterns. Max slammed his head into the Keeper of Old Lords for five hours, studying how he countered, what he did when he was nearly hit, and his changes in approach when hurting for health. It was gameplay perfectly matched to a gorgeously art-designed world, a Catholic nightmare of impossibly grand cathedrals and Gothic architecture. It's never just a brown game, or a steel game; it's a gray graveyard offset by luminous white lilies, or the broken wood structures in a greenish black sewer shining from eerie blue lamps.

Bloodborne achieves the atmosphere of Horror and asks you not to merely run or survive, but to persist, grow wiser, and overcome the most titanic and Lovecraftian enemies. It's a blend of uncompromising combat, elegant level design, and formidable aesthetic, all of which compliment each other perfectly.

Tie Between #4 & #5: Life is Strange (DontnoD, Square-Enix)
An episodic choice game that gives Telltale a run for their money. Essentially Episode 1 was a mixed bag, episodes 2, 3, and 4 are some of the most affecting narrative I've seen in a game, and episode 5 started out terrifying but fumbled nearly all of the series' strengths into a disappointing ending. If you don't give it a chance because of the ending, you're robbing yourself.

Max Caulfield is a young photography student who realizes she can rewind time. In a game that's mostly about choosing how you treat people and conflicts, this means you can take back any decision, and that you are forced to see, over and over again, that there are no perfect solutions to some problems in life.

While the end of the series is about averting a disastrous storm, most of the series if reclaiming a lost childhood friendship, searching for a missing teenager, and navigating the politics of a boarding school. It's about having no perfect romance options, and breaking into the school swimming pool at midnight, and sometimes it's about suicide prevention and euthanasia. It's about small, personal friendships and feuds, mostly between female characters, whom are multi-racial and of different bodytypes, and none of whom are sexualized. That sentence shouldn't be high praise, but we know it is.

Tie Between #2 & #3: SOMA (Frictional Games)
Talk about impossible ties: these two games have virtually nothing in common. Saying one is better than the other isn't even apples-to-oranges, it's Coca Cola-to-gasoline. SOMA is a story-driven stealth game where you play a neurology patient having his brain scanned, only in the middle of the scan you blink and are abruptly find yourself in an abandoned submarine station. Critics have mistakenly talked around this premise like it's a big twist, but less than an hour into the game you learn that it's been more than a hundred years, the company kept your brain scan on file, and is now using it to operate a robotic suit. The original you died on an operating table a century ago.

SOMA isn't about a twist. Bioshock would end the game on that revelation for horror, but SOMA explores the psychological effects of mind-body problems like this over its narrative, as you try to understand what this means for your sense of self, what's going on, and to evade other nightmarish machines that seem to think they're people, too. All of this is just what you have to take in stride as you try to find The Ark, a solar-powered device housing scans of a thousand uploaded people, which is the dying earth's last chance to keep some of humanity in existence. They'll live in an illusory paradise, but isn't that better than nothing? Your character has to ask that as he realizes more about his new body. That's the maturity of SOMA. It's about examining dilemmas, not saving them to be twist endings.

Your companion, Catherine Chun, willingly uploaded herself. She doesn't have a body and has to live in a glorified iPhone you carry around. She's intensely pragmatic where you're mortified, and you spend the whole game waiting for her to turn evil on you. But she isn't evil. She just doesn't look at the digital future like you do. At one point she monologues on how life has always been full of things out of her control, right until the power cuts off and she ceases to be. You fix the battery, and she picks right up again in the middle of a line that made me love her. She keeps on chatting while you're forced to consider the fragile nature of consciousness.

Tie Between #2 & #3: Crypt of the Necrodancer (Brace Yourself Games, Klei Games)
Then there's this game, which turns its catchy soundtrack into a game mechanic. Crypt of the Necrodancer is a procedurally generated dungeon crawling game where you can only move, dig through walls, and attack enemies to the beat of the music. Enemy skeletons boogie as they chase you, floor tiles flash colors like a disco floor, and bosses are themed on things like Death Metal and the Blues.

Since you're likely to die in ten minutes or less, and you have to start your progress over again from scratch, it becomes a compulsive feedback loop of trying to conquer a zone of the dungeons. Every time you descend, the level layout, enemies, and treasures are different. It's the catchiest usage of the formula I've played since Spelunky, and like Spelunky, I wound up uninstalling it for fear of addiction.

But there's no denying its genius as you go deeper and deeper, finding enemies that can move diagonally, or drop bombs if you hesitate a beat, or that are seeking to parry you - always inviting you into another new rhythm. When you realize the game is balanced for several more playable characters with their own abilities, including one who's injured by money and one who can't attack at all, you have to concede. There's no game in 2015 with more tightness between its parts.

#1 - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt Red)
A 122-hour love affair with a game the depths of which I haven't hit since LIMBO and Mass Effect 2. I've spent three months trying to figure out an article that would allow me to hit all the reasons I love this game, and what's my conclusion? There isn't a single premise that could contain them all. The game presents a startlingly beautiful and busy open world, crafted with attention to how sunrises look over lakes, sunrises look through the leaves of trees, and how multiple micro-flora cluster at the edge of forest shade patterns. Yet it's also a world with great attention to the big details, of characters who corrupt when they reach power too quickly, where battlefields are gruesome gaping wounds to remind you that while combat makes a fun game, violence destroys communities. Its many plots are full of characters making hard decisions, and thrusts just as many hard decisions into your hands.

To my reckoning, this is the first time in the series that nails Geralt as an introverted outsider, likely withdrawn from overexposure to bigotry and the trauma of war. He hides emotional reactions from humans and elves, but shares private thoughts with goats or cats when no one else is in the room. The game explores how this monster hunter is a professional supporting character. He's not even the lead in the Epic Fantasy you're playing - Ciri, his missing foster daughter, is. You have the agency to slay miscellaneous monsters, you'll gather people to support her cause against the evil army, but your mission is ultimately to play henchman in her hero's journey. You can fool yourself into forgetting, but to its last minutes, the game never forgets the discomfort of having to let your child live her life.

It's clearly inspired to Bethesda's Skyrim, but the stories in hidden caves and forbidden crypts are so much more personalized. Often details are hidden. It's easy to complete the quest of finding a missing fiance, discover he's dead, and collect your reward. But you can also follow the grieving woman to his body to ensure she is safe as she discovers him. You can complete the task of avenging a child's father by only talking to his uncle and slaying the beast, and maybe letting the uncle keep the fee to help feed the child. But you can also find the boy behind the hut to pass on final comfort, after the game has already told you the quest is over.

There are so many little decisions the game leaves you around the edges of what it encourages you to do that I cleared the entire quest log. What a masterpiece.
Before you go, I said something about Honorable Mentions...

Honorable Mention:
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below (Tecmo-Koei Games, Square-Enix)
This might as well have been designed for me. It blends the music and art of Dragon Quest, my childhood favorite RPG series, with a slightly more thoughtful take on Dynasty Warriors, my favorite hack-n-slash series. Old mechanics like siege weapons, which never felt imperative in Dynasty Warriors, are relevant against titans like Gigantes and Kandar. Best of all, DQH hits a balance of reasonable-length levels and downtime in camp, allotting skill points and buying gear.
Honorable Mention: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture (The Chinese Room, Frictional Games)
From the title, any SpecFic fan can tell you the one thing that definitely didn't happen is The Rapture. This was another game I went through with Max. Though nothing can actually attack and kill you, Max was on edge for the first hour of exploring the suspiciously empty English town, sure that something would jump out at any moment. The environments are gorgeous and so suspiciously empty, capturing the quaint 80's English town while leaving you with so many clues as to where they all went. And wait until you see the planetarium.
Honorable Mention: Super Mario Maker (Nintendo)
One of my favorite pastimes of 2015 was watching Super Mario Maker playthroughs. I don't own a WiiU, or else I probably would have lost dozens of hours to wacky 2D platforming. As it was, when others put on a Netflix series in the background as they cleaned, I'd have Mario Maker levels, to see people tweak Nintendo's old formats, or completely destroy them in devilishly hard designs. Some of these were downright asinine (like the Klepek/Ryckert feud that hit critical mass last week), but the appeal of what fans were able to build is undeniable.

Dishonorable Mentions: 2015 was a phenomenal year in videogames (which is one word at this point, sorry folks, but it's used as a noun). AAA companies got used to the console hardware, while indie developers continued a steady stream of interesting mechanical and narrative titles. I've got almost as many promising games left over from 2015 as I do novels.

Most notably, Crystal Dynamics's Rise of the Tomb Raider was X-Box One exclusive and only hits PC later this month, while Prison Architect left Early Access in early December, too late for me to give it the time I wanted. I feel like both would wind up somewhere on this list. From what I played in Early Access, Prison Architect has the chance to be one of the great satires in any medium.

I've also heard interesting things about Cibele and Ronin. We'll see if I can get to them. I've got this novel to write, you know?


  1. It's really cool to see Tales from the Borderlands, Until Dawn, Life is Strange and SOMA on here! Such amazing experiences. I couldn't have chosen better titles of the genre.

    I was wondering, did you play Undertale this year?

    1. Hi Cindy! Glad you dug SOMA and Life is Strange as well. I didn't even know some of these games existed until 2015. The discovery aspect has been one of my favorites as a hobbyist.

      I did play Undertale, and could not get into it. Even as a childhood fan of the JRPGs it was parodying and subverting, the Bullet Hell approach to combat and the slow, corny jokes didn't work on me. I gave up after the game show-inspired fight against a certain character, when none of the humor was landing for me anymore. There's great love for it on the internet, and I kept shaming myself for not sharing its appeal, but eventually had to let it go.

    2. Yes, so true about these games. I don't remember before TellTale games did their games or before this year, I think the only time I've played something choice-based was Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, though I'm not even sure it falls into the same genre exactly.

      I was going back and forth with Undertale but ended up buying it. After the first few jokes I kind of got used to them, so there were mostly smirks here and there.

      I actually enjoyed the slower approach to combat and the idea of sparing monsters and rather expanding on their personalities than just murdering them. For a JRPG game I don't think I've done anything like it, and it was a nice step away from my usual MMORPGS's and such. The Fourth wall breaking was a nice touch, I really enjoyed that and overall the narrative. It's a fun experience, I'm looking forward to doing the Genocide run - also an interesting spin to the game.

      I really hope I get to play more games this year instead of just whoosh past them.

  2. Way out of my depth here. Not somethin I do. Love that you have the respite though.

    1. It's a heck of a hobby! Especially if you've got chronic pain that won't let you sleep or focus enough to read consistently.

  3. I liked ARK: Survival Evolved, even though it is Alpha". Didn't play those other ones, but you've intrigued me.
    I wish they'd bring Madden back to the PC.

    1. Those big multi-person survival games scare me. There's an appeal to go in and play altruist, Player Character Without Borders or some such, but there are so many stories of mobs destroying anything you build. Do you find ARK more welcoming?

  4. I really didn't buy any new games this year. Was too busy. So my number one pick is the only I did buy - Fallout4. (And like everyone else now playing the game, I'm addicted to this time suck.)

    1. Fallout 4 is one of the year's giant games that I didn't have the money or time to pick up. The taller tales surrounding it makes it sound like fun to run around in while NPR is going. What are your favorite parts so far?

  5. I don't play games, but I watch hubby play and I loved Ori and the Blind Forest. It was a beautiful game and I enjoyed the story. He hasn't played much Witcher 3 but that's because he's reading the books and says there is a lot in the books that tie into what he had already played in the game.


Counter est. March 2, 2008