Alex Navarro is a Norwegian metaphysician, author, and mountaineer. He is best known as the longest reigning PAX Wrestling Heavyweight Champion in history. If you confronted him about it, he'd probably admit that he spends a little too much time on Twitter.
2015 is probably not a year I'm going to remember very fondly. The reasons for that are manifold and naaaaahhhh I'm just fucking with you.
2015 was fine, especially if new video game releases are a thing you're personally and/or professionally invested in. This was the year the new consoles finally started to come into their own with big, if not exclusive, games. Meanwhile, the indie scene continued to deliver strange, wonderful, unexpected experiences amid the usual chaos of developers trying to figure out how to survive in an increasingly crowded and ill-defined market. The games business is still in a strange, sometimes awful place. I think it's important to acknowledge that, so that we avoid the temptation to sweep last year's various grotesqueries under the rug and pretend everything's Back In Business. It ain't. Video games are still in a precarious place, but 2015 felt like at least a small course correction back toward solid ground. Maybe we're not there yet, but I can see it blinking in the distant horizon.
At one point, the list you're about to read had something like 30 games on it. Around the time it got whittled down to the top 20 or so I started feeling the cuts pretty deeply. I loved a lot of games this year, including several I never had a single expectation for prior to sitting down to play them. If you'll indulge me for a minute, I'd like to just say a few words about some of those games I cut, a eulogy for those who fell at the sword of arbitrary numerical ranking.
To Downwell, know that I loved you. You were so close to making this list. You were my favorite mobile experience of the year. You are the unofficial number 11 game on this list. You are fast and frenetic and fantastically designed. Everyone should play you.
To Massive Chalice, you were maybe my biggest surprise of the year. Tactical turn-based strategy is extremely Not My Thing, but you were good enough to make me question whether that's even true anymore. You were kind of ugly and I wish that last battle weren't such a nightmare, but between your bloodline systems and goofy charm, you won me over.
To Yoshi's Woolly World, don't listen to the people who told you that you were just a Yoshi-fied Kirby's Epic Yarn. You offered up a surprising amount of hidden challenge, and you did the arts & crafts aesthetic even better than Kirby did. If you had come out last year, you'd absolutely be on that top 10 list. You are the handsomest child in school and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
To Contradiction: Spot the Liar!, look. You're not actually a very good game, but that feels completely beside the point. You made me feel like FMV gaming isn't completely dead, that there is still low-budget life in this misbegotten genre. You are full of doofy, memorable-as-hell characters and I love the way everyone in the cast just went for it. I hope more of these are allowed to be made.
To Cibele, thank you for turning in a story that managed to resonate with me in a deeply personal way. You are earnest and open and frank about a kind of coming-of-age story that, to my perhaps limited knowledge, hasn't been well-explored in this, or any other medium. I greatly appreciated that.
To Assassin's Creed Syndicate, I was super ready to not like you at all. Way to make me like you a whole bunch. Best of luck on whatever the hell it is you're doing with that metaplot down the road.
To Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, I demand you release your vice-like grip over me. You came out in 2014, and your 2015 content has been hit-or-miss, but I am still dropping at least several hours to you a week. Lord, deliver me from this soul-consuming nightmare.
To Guitar Hero Live, I owe you an apology. I was absolutely ready to dismiss you out-of-hand earlier in the year. I did not have a great deal of trust that Activision would support a genuinely inventive, more challenging, more appropriately-tuned-for-2015-music-consuming-audiences kind of game. Even your dumb FMV is good. Congratulations on making Guitar Hero feel fresh again.
To Rock Band 4, I'm not going to apologize for any of the things I said about you throughout the year. I knew what you were going in, and I still came away feeling pretty down. Your hardware issues were kinda inexcusable, and outside of just playing around with the career mode and making setlists, there's not much to you I find all that appealing--sorry, Brutal Mode, but you don't do it for me. That said, you're also probably the game I've spent the most amount of time playing for the last few months. Returning to Rock Band has been like remembering a long-forgotten reflex, muscle memory I'd let fall into dormancy as other priorities overcame my life. Even without support for my beloved Ion kit, returning to the rhythms of Rock Band DLC has been an undeniably pleasurable experience. I wish the game did something, anything to separate itself from the familiarity of the older games, but I'd be a bald-faced liar if I pretended that familiarity isn't soothing in its own right. You are not a great Rock Band game, but you are a Rock Band game, and maybe--for me at least--that's enough.
Anyway, onto the actual list that matters because there are numbers on it.
Video game level editors are usually better propositions than products. Trying to distill level-building tools down to something the non-game designer set can easily wrap their heads around is tough, and very few games have ever really done this in a way that appealed to me, the idiot. It had gotten to the point that I was convinced I simply did not have a head for level design. No matter how simplified level editors appeared to be, I can't think of a single game in which I've ever made something good enough to want to share with the world.
Super Mario Maker is the closest I've ever come to doing exactly that. Between the top-notch Gamepad interface, and the wealth of familiar enemies, obstacles, and power-ups to play around with, Mario Maker practically begs you to make something, anything. And I did, here and there. After my time with it, I'm still not wholly convinced I have much of a mind for game design, but I did manage to make complete levels, albeit ones that felt perhaps a bit too rooted in the Mario levels I loved most in my youth, which is sort of what's kept me from posting them. But that I made them at all is a minor miracle. For a while, I was convinced all I'd get out of Mario Maker was a wealth of levels made by my betters. Even if that were true, it'd probably still have to make this list. I've found so many unusual little creations in my time with the game, the kind of stuff that made me immediately retreat to the level builder just to try and dissect how these things ticked. I know people have complained about Mario Maker's inability to surface the greatest creations in-game, but a little cursory searching around the Internet has provided me with far more options than I have time to play through.
Super Mario Maker is an achievement. I can't wait to see what else Nintendo does with this thing, and what future entries might look like.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is Crystal Dynamics finding its stride in an incredible way. I liked 2013's Tomb Raider a good bunch, but I also recognize the criticisms people have had about it. Rise fixes a bunch of those issues, and finally coheres into the deft mix of classic Tomb Raiding and Modern Blockbuster Action Gaming that the first game felt like it was aiming toward. The pseudo-open world aspect of it is maybe a few inches from perfection--I wish they'd found a better way to pace out the challenge tombs and other hidden junk alongside the more linear story stuff--but the content of it is fantastic. Even amid huge, amazing setpieces and better (if not great) combat, those challenge tombs became the secret MVP of the game. I almost wish they were the primary focus of the whole enterprise.
It's even got a worthwhile story. How many games did we talk about this year by starting off sentences with, "Well, the story sucks, but..."? It feels like a whole bunch. Rise has kind of a dumb story, but it leans into it in a way that absolutely works. Maybe it leans a little heavy on THE ENTIRE WORLD EXPLODING AROUND LARA ALWAYS stuff, but it establishes solid villains, makes Lara's plight personal and basically believable, and runs through its action paces at a terrific clip. Great stuff all around.
The Witcher 3 was going to be the game.
Wait, let me back up. I have a bad history with long RPGs. Not of hating them, exactly, but certainly of bouncing off them long before their conclusion. I've tried, and failed, to get into numerous games produced by Bethesda, Bioware, Obsidian, and the like, and never been able to go deep into them. I even bounced so hard off the original Witcher that I never bothered to try The Witcher 2. Then I sat in on a couple of The Witcher 3's E3 demos, and saw something I felt like I could really, finally dedicate myself to. It almost happened.
I got further into The Witcher 3 than any of the games like it I'd tried previously. I gave it roughly the same thirty hours I gave to other 2015 open world games like Assassin's Creed Syndicate and Mad Max. Apart from the obvious mechanical differences, the big difference there is that those games ended around that mark. With The Witcher, I hit that same timestamp, then something came up. Then several things came up. I still had like sixty hours of game left but things kept coming up. The momentum was broken, and though I have made fleeting attempts to return to Geralt's adventures, restoring that momentum has proved more or less impossible.
That's OK, because I still feel like I got a great deal out of the experience. Quibbles with the combat and inventory management aside, I loved just about every second I spent playing The Witcher 3. I don't know if I'll ever go back, but I appreciate the hell out of what I managed to wring out of it.
I was pretty sure I was going to not like Undertale. I'm naturally averse to things people fall in love with en masse. When a lot of people suddenly love a thing very much, a suspicion arises in me that is both severe and likely unreasonable. I'm not saying this is a good or admirable quality for a person to have, but it is a quality I have.
I started playing Undertale shortly before GOTY deliberations began, and for the first 90 minutes, I was even more convinced this was not going to take. I could see small glimmers of the game people had been talking up to me for months, but it also felt like it there was a deep-seated love for games like Earthbound missing from my equation. I really thought this was just for people who wielded an extremely specific kind of nostalgia. I'm glad I was wrong.
Once Undertale gets into its groove, it sings. It fires off absurd characters and situations, but grounds them in a kind of heartfelt honesty. It presents a slightly ironic remove from the kinds of games and systems it references, but still uses them in clever and charming ways. I greatly appreciated its gestures toward pacifism, its notion of toying with the way we typically play games, the reflexive idea of attacking that which stands in our way without ever stopping to consider why. It's chock full of characters I absolutely loved. To name a few: Papyrus, Sans, Mettaton, Flowey, and, of course, Napstablook.
In Undertale, I found myself identifying with a self-loathing, sandwich-loving ghost on a level I wasn't entirely comfortable with. I can't recommend this game enough.
6. Until Dawn
Of all the things that possibly could have done it, I never expected the mean girl from Until Dawn to be the schism that tore the gaming world apart in 2015. Not even Undertale was as polarizing as Emily, the calculatedly upsetting teen everyone seemed to want to throw down over this year. In pro-wrestling parlance, Emily is Until Dawn's true heel. The monsters you fight are the equivalent of late-era NWO members. They're just a bunch of indistinct violent things to throw at the protagonists in moments of required conflict. Emily, on the other hand, is a character that inspires a genuine, often intense reaction from the audience. She is masterfully built to appeal to your basest dislikes. She can be annoying, ineffectual, unnecessarily combative, and sometimes maddeningly right. The thing I think some people fail to realize is that she's exactly what that character is supposed to be, thanks in no small part to voice actress Nichole Bloom. She gives the best performance in a game that features at least four pretty great ones. She hits all the notes necessary to make an audience hate Emily's nakedly flawed, self-absorbed existence, and simultaneously make a segment of that audience love her for doing it so well. She's the Sasha Banks of Until Dawn.
I really like the rest of Until Dawn too, but I have wanted to write something about The Whole Emily Thing for a while now, and this seemed the most opportune place for it. Anyway, Until Dawn is wonderful. Every of-age PlayStation 4 owner should try it, if only to send the message that Peter Stormare ought to be in more video games.
5. Her Story
I'm in a similar place to Austin when it comes to Her Story. In the time since its release, I've cooled on it a bit. If you spend a little time pondering the trickier details of the game's central mystery, it's all a bit ridiculous. And once you've watched every video a couple of times, you can start to see the seams in the storytelling a bit more clearly.
Yet Her Story nonetheless represents maybe the single-best afternoon of gaming I had all year. The second I booted up that fake desktop and started inputting search terms, I was hooked. I pulled up Notepad, and began jotting down every word I could think of. Every off-hand mention, every proper name, anything Viva Seifert uttered that could be perceived as a clue. For the few hours I spent unraveling that mystery, nothing else could have possibly distracted me from my task. If the story weren't good enough, the central performance not strong enough, I doubt I would have fallen so deeply down Her Story's rabbit hole.
It's easy to look back in hindsight and pick apart Her Story's flaws, but its deeply engrossing in-the-moment gameplay can't be discounted.
I know I haven't finished Life Is Strange. You know I haven't finished Life Is Strange. I know that you know I haven't finished Life Is Strange because if you're reading this list, there's a strong possibility you've been watching Vinny, Austin, and myself play through Life Is Strange. If you've been watching Vinny, Austin, and myself play through Life Is Strange, then you probably also know why this is on my list anyway.
Life Is Strange is one of the best experiences I've had playing a game with friends all year, and it's not even a multiplayer game. No doubt I'd have enjoyed the adventures of Time Rewindin' Max Caulfield on my own, that I'd have appreciated the relationships between her, her best friend Chloe, and the various high school personalities that populate Blackwell Academy while flying solo. But having Vinny and Austin there to bounce plot points off of, to help dissect the various twists and turns, has been greatly beneficial. If I were reviewing Life Is Strange, I obviously wouldn't have taken any of this into account. But for a list of my favorite gaming experiences of the year, I can't discount how great it's been to dig into this story alongside good friends.
And it's been a really good story, too. Life Is Strange is, more or less, about trying to fix broken things, often long after the fact. Through a combination of time travel powers and good old fashioned teen detective work, Max has to save the world around her. Sometimes that's as simple as rekindling an old friendship, sometimes it's as complicated as trying to refashion an entire timeline. The choices it asks you to make are rarely easy, and there's terrific nuance to how Dontnod writes and stages each scenario. As Vinny said in his list, maybe it'll miss the landing by a country mile, but even if the last few hours are junk, everything I've experienced of it so far as been fantastic.
Going into SOMA, I gave myself a roughly five percent chance of completing it. I had reason to be skeptical. Amnesia: Dark Descent is a game I still occasionally think about in a distressing way, the way you might remember a mildly traumatic event, like falling off your bike, or the first time you experienced a panic attack. I did not complete Amnesia. It did its damage in a relentlessly sweaty couple of hours. By that point I'd seen enough: This was a great horror game, and I never wanted to play it again.
I don't know why I assumed that SOMA would be identical in both tone and delivery. Yes, it's still a game about horrific monsters chasing you around in the dark, but it's also about consciousness, transhumanism, and alternative definitions of life after death. Instead of wrapping its premise up into a big, gotcha-style twist, it signals pretty early on exactly why your character has awoken on an underwater base a hundred years after having his brain scanned in a medical procedure, then proceeds to delve deeply into the existential questions his horrifying situation raises. It goes hard on the nature of the conscious mind, the possibilities of its replicability, and how something like that could go grotesquely wrong.
I loved the story SOMA was telling, the questions it was posing. I loved them so much I was able to look past the big angry monster game that story was built somewhat awkwardly atop of. SOMA didn't really need abominations of machine and flesh chasing me around to hold my attention, but it was worth the stress to see the game through to its excellent conclusion.
I know people who have sworn off the sports genre in all its forms who have taken to Rocket League instantly. I know hardcore sports fans who spent more time with Rocket League than Madden, FIFA, or NBA 2K16 this year. Somehow, Rocket League has bridged a gap between two audiences that have often appeared largely at odds with one another. It has advanced sports gamer/non-sports gamer relations to their highest levels since the heyday of NFL Blitz and NBA Jam. It is the Jimmy Carter of rocket-powered vehicle-based soccer video games.
It's also some of the most fun I've had with any game this generation. Rocket League is a near-perfect blend of easy, accessible controls and tight, nuanced gameplay. It's a game anyone can learn quickly, but with practice, allows for incredible feats of skill. It's the second-most satisfying progression I've had in a game this year, as I evolved from a desperate ball-hog into a multifaceted team player. Maybe I'll never be the guy who scores the 360-bicycle kicks off the roofs of opposing players, but even without top-shelf scoring skills, I had blast every time I played Rocket League this year, and I don't expect I'll stop playing it any time soon.
The first-most satisfying progression I had in a game this year was Splatoon. It's not even close.
Here's the thing: I don't really like online shooters. Part of it is an admitted skill deficiency. Despite being a male person raised in the United States of America, I'm not especially adept at shooting people in any context. That tends to be an issue when going up against seasoned shooter fans in just about any game. Every once in a while, some game offers up a novel enough twist on the genre to get me interested for a month or so--Titanfall being the most recent example of this--but it never lasts. Then Splatoon came along.
Splatoon clicked with me in a way no other competitive shooter has. Part of it is the shift away from shooting enemies as primary focus--blasting fools is more incidental to the larger goal of splattering every map with as much of your team's paint color as possible. Taking out opposing players and sending them back to their base at the other end of the map is certainly important, but mostly you're spending your time looking through every nook and cranny of the map, trying to locate sections that aren't drenched in your team's color. Making a giant mess is fun enough, but the pace of play is even better. Through a combination of Splatoon's surprisingly useful motion controls, its ingenious traversal mechanics (you can swim through your team's paint color for both stealth and greater speed), and wide variety of weapon loadouts, Nintendo has crafted a tremendously exciting online multiplayer game. Nintendo, the company that, until a couple of years ago, couldn't be relied upon to deliver online games that functioned normally. Nintendo did this.
Splatoon wasn't without its quirks at launch. It took Nintendo too long to make friends-list matches an easy enough process, and while the surprisingly enjoyable single-player campaign offset the initial dearth of maps and weapons a bit, the game still felt overly lean. But through a series of free content updates, Nintendo has continuously added to and improved Splatoon's play experience. Now there are more weapons to unlock than I'll ever have time to experiment with, and enough maps that I kinda wish the developers would switch to a randomization cycle of three or four at a time, instead of the two that the game currently limits to.
Months into playing Splatoon on a semi-regular basis, I'm still drawn to the core game. The rules variety of the ranked matches is fun every now and again, but the basic play mode of four-on-four splatting is still so much fun that I hardly feel the need to engage with anything else. Even when I drop out for a few weeks, all it takes is a match or two to get my squid-legs about me. I'm still unlocking new outfits and guns, and I try to participate in every Splatfest, no matter how dumb the competition theme might be. And I will continue to do these things until the Wii U and its servers inevitably shuffle off into that good night.