2015 was an odd year in gaming for me. I finished only one current-year AAA release, Batman: Arkham Knight, because most of them – Mad Max, Fallout 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Battlefield Hardline – simply didn’t interest me. I spent a lot of time playing major releases from previous years, such as Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Dead Space, and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. However, I did play a crapload of smaller titles and indie releases, and that’s why my top 10 is composed entirely of them.
There were two current-year games that I started in 2015 but didn’t finish in time for inclusion on this list: Pillars of Eternity and Tales of Zestiria. I found the former immensely frustrating, and I don’t know if I’ll have the patience to go back to it in 2016. As for the latter, based on what I’ve played, I think it would have missed my top 10, but not by much. It’s probably the 13th or 14th best game of the year.
There were fewer games I loved this year than last, but also fewer games I hated. That’s why I’m only doing a bottom 2 this year instead of a bottom 5. And boy, I hated that bottom two.
But before we get to the worst games of the year, let’s talk about the best. I’m not doing honourable mentions this year, because there are far too many. Instead, I’ve included a list of the current-year games I played in 2015, where you can see my full ranking. You can find that list at this link.
Now, on to the list!
THE 10 BEST GAMES OF THE YEAR
By any reasonable standard of evaluating video games, Undertale shouldn’t be on this list. It’s far less funny and clever than it thinks it is. Its combat system doesn’t become interesting until midway through the game. Its critiques of choice and morality systems in video games are about two years too late to be considered trenchant. It has nonsensical and absurd difficulty spikes, with boss battles sometimes passing breezily but subsequent random encounters resulting in speedy death.
But Undertale just works, and it’s difficult to explain exactly why. More so than most games, Undertale feels like the result of a coherent artistic vision (which makes sense, considering it was developed almost entirely by a single person, Toby Fox). It presents a fantasy world that feels lived-in and wholly unique, with a cast of weird, wacky, amusing characters. (People who are tired of elves and orcs, take note!) However, most of all, Undertale is a celebratory game. It’s a game that celebrates friendship and welcomes misfits into its open arms. Warmth oozes out of every nook and cranny of it. Undertale may be a product of and for the Internet generation, but the emotions it engenders are timeless.
Remember MSN Messenger? No? Well, Emily is Away is here to remind you about the time you spent chatting with your high school buddies on school nights when you should have been doing homework. This short piece of interactive fiction about high school friends drifting apart in college will take you back to a time when you had a terrible taste in music, and everybody and their cousin had a MySpace profile. Emily is Away not only nails the vernacular of young adults, but also perfectly portrays the weird mix of emotions that they feel as they drift through life. (Bonus: it’s available for free on Steam.)
You can view my playthrough of the game here.
Tales from the Borderlands should not work as well as it does. It’s a Telltale-style conversations-and-quicktime-events game set in the Borderlands universe, better known for its cartoonish gunplay and dick jokes. But by slyly poking fun at their own format, Telltale has managed to craft an exhilarating (and occasionally emotional) galactic thrill ride with memorable setpieces, cool characters, and numerous WTF? moments. Tales from the Borderlands is proof that the Telltale’s formula doesn’t just apply to grim, gritty worlds; it can also be used to have a lot of fun.
You can view my playthrough of the game here.
Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the most gorgeous games ever made, with a hand-drawn art style and a bright but naturalistic colour palette. It also happens to be a brutally difficult Metroidvania with ludicrous difficulty spikes that almost made me want to leave this game off the list. But when Ori works, man, is it a sight to behold. Platforming is fluid and wonderfully tight, and watching the titular character in motion is a mesmerizing sight. The gameplay also reflects Ori’s exploration of increasingly dark, damaged, and dangerous areas. Skill trees add an element of choice and strategy, as does turning saves into a limited resource. The result is a game that resonates emotionally with the player not just because of its tearjerking story or affecting soundtrack, but also because its gameplay, narrative, and art design work in perfect harmony.
You can view my playthrough of the game here. (Yes, I suck at the game. You don’t need to tell me twice.)
Creating fear and tension in video games is a lost art. Too many games opt for jump scares or lighting so dim that you can’t even tell what’s going on. By contrast, Red Amazon is set in the middle of the day. It uses blankness and isolation to engender a sense of fear in the player. A foe could be standing around any corner in the woods, and this fact keeps the player constantly on their toes. A masterclass in how to create tension in a brief period of time, more game designers could stand to take their cues from Red Amazon.
You can download the game for free from here.
If you asked me what my favourite genre of game is, “fumblecore climbing simulator” wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the list. But somehow this polygonal sorta platformer is my fifth-favourite game of 2015. Even more surprisingly, it’s from Ubisoft, the king of homogenized AAA sandboxes. Unlike the Assassin’s Creeds and Far Cries of the world, Grow Home is a short game, taking no more than five hours to complete. For me, the first hour was controller-snappingly frustrating, as I struggled to get used to the controls. But after that, something clicked, and growing the game’s procedurally-generated beanstalk felt less like a chore and more like a challenge.
It helps that Grow Home positively oozes charm, having one of the cutest protagonists in all of gaming. B.U.D. is simply adorable. I just want to cuddle his little robot body forever. But Grow Home doesn’t just coast on charm. It engenders a sense of wonder that comes from discovering new sights and secrets in caves and clouds. It also has thrilling moments, like gliding from floating island to floating island on a leaf. Seeing the ground so many metres below is both scary and exciting, like riding a roller coaster for the first time. All in all, a fantastic, charming, unique experience that I urge everyone to play.
Much of Life Is Strange takes place at sunset. It’s a beautiful time of day that makes for great photographs. (Max, the game’s heroine, is a photographer, after all.) But with its muted orange, yellow, and red hues, it’s also a time of day that evokes feelings of nostalgia and longing.
Nostalgia and longing are the main emotional undercurrents of Life Is Strange. Part supernatural thriller, part CW television programme in video game form, the game uses time travel to explore feelings of longing for a past – i.e. a childhood – when things were simpler and happiness came easily. This is difficult emotional territory for a video game, and Life Is Strange sometimes stumbles, particularly in its awkward dialogue. But for having the audacity to confront the complexities of teenage emotion, which are often more complicated than we give them credit for, Life Is Strange deserves a berth on this list. Plus, the fourth episode, with its clever simulation of detective work and jaw-dropping final twist, is probably the best thing I played all year.
You can view my playthrough of the game here.
By most standards, Her Story is a bizarre game. I mean, it’s an FMV game in the year 2015! However, Sam Barlow’s intricate murder mystery uses pre-recorded videos not as a gimmick, but as an essential tool. They’re the only source of information that the player can use to piece together the story of what happened. And that’s really the player’s only goal: figure out what happened. Once you do, a small dialog box pops up asking you if you understand, you quit the game, and the credits roll. Her Story trusts the player to find satisfaction in their own understanding of the story, which shows a remarkable amount of maturity on Barlow’s part.
There’s something about Gravity Ghost that appeals to me on a visceral level. Maybe it’s the game’s weird humour or gorgeous, glockenspiel-driven soundtrack. Maybe it’s the fact that the game looks like cartoons drawn on construction paper cutouts. Maybe it’s the surprisingly dark narrative. Whatever it is, this charming, physics-based puzzle platformer is one of my favourite games of 2015.
It’s difficult to explain Parallax’s appeal to gamers who haven’t played it. “It’s like Portal and Quantum Conundrum had a baby!” I say. But I still haven’t been able to convince anyone to give it a whirl, which is a shame, because it’s easily the best game of 2015. Parallax takes a relatively simple puzzle mechanic – get from point A and point B by travelling back and forth between two different dimensions – and twists it in fiendishly clever ways to create some positively brain-melting conundrums. Nonetheless, Parallax never feels unfair; it hits the sweet spot of pleasingly difficult that even puzzle games from much larger studios (like its aforementioned parents) fail to hit. By the time you reach the levels that turn you around, upside-down, and sideways, you’ll be disoriented and quite possibly nauseated. But you’ll be having a blast all the same.
Let’s leave aside the developer’s puerile Twitter meltdown for a second. Taken on its own merits, Sunset is an awful game. It’s almost impressive how much it misunderstands everything from art to geopolitics to basic video game design. What is meant to be an emotional and intimate look at the impact that oppressive government and violent revolution can have on individuals’ lives quickly devolves into nothing but a repetitive janitorial simulator, complete with weird bugs (e.g. the one pictured above) and chugging framerates. I have nothing against interactive fiction with minimal gameplay elements, as my inclusion of Emily is Away on my favourites list demonstrates. But boring, pretentious, poorly-optimized interactive fiction like this should be consigned to the trash bin.
I love 3D platformers. It doesn’t take much to make me enjoy jumping around from platform to platform, bashing enemies along the way. Forward to the Sky didn’t need to do anything other than be basically competent. It was not. It was hobbled with design decisions so stupid that I’m not positive the game was created by humans. Lose all your health? Have fun restarting the entire twenty-minute level from the beginning! Oh, you didn’t waste time going after all the collectibles? Well, we’re going to hide pieces of the plot from you! That’s right, the game withheld its plot from you if you didn’t collect enough of its trinkets, which leaves the player confused as to what actually happened. Combine that with a bland art style, irritating voice acting, and atrocious level design, and you’ve got a recipe for the worst game of 2015.
That does it for my round-up of gaming in 2015. I’m looking forward to many exciting titles in 2016, like Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2, and Persona 5. What games did you enjoy in 2015? What games are you looking forward to in 2016? Let me know down in the comments!