Graham Reznick co-wrote Until Dawn with Larry Fessenden and Supermassive Games. He directs films (I Can See You), sound designs films (The House of the Devil), and he recently directed the audio drama The Chambers Tape, a 1970s New Age guided meditation that goes horribly wrong. He’s on Twitter.
Hello, and welcome to my Top Eleven(ish) Games of 2015 list, not ranked. I asked Until Dawn co-writer Larry Fessenden to help me write this, but he’s only played one video game in his life (so he says), and it was two hours of Until Dawn at my apartment. His list looked like this:
10. UNTIL DAWN
9. UNTIL DAWN
8. UNTIL DAWN
7. UNTIL DAWN
6. UNTIL DAWN
5. UNTIL DAWN
4. UNTIL DAWN
3. UNTIL DAWN
2. UNTIL DAWN
1. UNTIL DAWN
I took Larry’s suggestions under advisement but decided to make my own unranked list. UNTIL DAWN isn’t even mentioned for at least one paragraph.
At first glance, the subject of Life Is Strange wasn’t totally in my wheelhouse (a teenage girl at a Pacific Northwest boarding school takes photos and has feelings) but it reminded me of Gone Home and it looked like something I could convince my wife to play with me. And we loved it. It wasn’t just that it veered quickly towards mind-bending science fiction, it was that the characters were well drawn, relatable, and, most importantly: they were shaped by the player’s decisions.
Life Is Strange is in a type of genre that has only recently become truly possible--interactive cinematic narrative. This was one of the main goals of Until Dawn, and it’s thrilling to see another game pull it off while telling a completely different type of story with different gameplay mechanics--and see both go over so well with audiences.
Designing/writing for interactive narrative forces the creators to collaborate with the audience, to anticipate their reaction and adapt the story to their choices. But, in games like Life Is Strange there’s still a very distinct sense of direction--no matter what the player does, the story will still always have a solid trajectory. I can’t wait to see more stories designed like this.
Australian science fiction novelist Greg Egan is one of my favorite writers, so I was stoked to discover that SOMA seems to take inspiration from his book Permutation City. That said, this is is a game where you should know almost nothing about the story before going in. Just experience it. The visuals are glitchy and caustic in the most satisfyingly disorienting ways. The audio is stellar. The gnarly robotic vocalizations are violent and jagged but have a keen sense of raw emotion. Accomplishing that balance is vital to the plot. And the foley is location based, meaning it was recorded in real world locations as opposed to in a studio. So, in game, if you hear footsteps on metal in a big open room they’re actually the sound of footsteps on metal in a big open room. This leads to a remarkably naturalistic sense of spatial presence--which amplifies the terror.
Play while wearing headphones or a nice surround sound system if you can.
Ah, Bloodborne. What is there left to say? Welcome home, good hunter! Very well, let the echoes become your strength! May the good blood guide your way! The bell ringing woman rings a sinister bell! Tiny Tonitrus! Master Logarius! Cainhurst Castle! Brain of Mensis! Snake Ball, Viper Pit, and Cramped Casket! Grinding Slime Students for Blood Echoes! And who could forget Rom, The Vacuous Spider! Yharnam Yharnam Yharnam Yharnam! My fingers have been sore since March.
"But Graham," you say, out loud. "Isn't Downwell a combo driven retro 2D platformer? And isn’t Batman: Arkham Knight the massive final chapter in a AAA trilogy based on a 75 year old billion dollar franchise? Featuring open world storytelling and twitchy Riddler racing levels that deserve their own standalone game? And Ghost In The Shell style Batmobile tank battles, and so many motherfucking Riddler trophies it makes anyone with even a touch of OCD want to pull out every hair on their body one at at time? How are these two titles related? Is it because they both feature characters plummeting onto the heads of enemies while trying to connect their takedowns into epic combos? Huh. I guess that could actually be a connection. Maybe I answered my own question. But that’s not enough to combine them into their own slot. Is it? …Hello?”
Smash Hit (VR)
The original Smash Hit came out last year and I played through the entire thing on my phone in one evening. Then I played it over and over again. You fly (straight forward) through a series of crystalline tunnels while tossing out silver metal pinballs at glass booby traps hell bent on getting up in your face--which can cost you precious multiball combos and remaining balls. The electronic score is great too--just the right balance of relaxing and propelling. When I saw this for sale on the Oculus store I literally shouted "OH YEAH!" and then jumped through a wall like the Kool-Aid Man. It's perfect for VR. If you have any access to a headset, run, don't walk, to stick your face in it.
"But Graham," you telepathically intone. "It's just a card game. And not even a gamey card game like Magic or Hearthstone. BORING. So what if it was created by Zach Gage, one of the minds behind Ridiculous Fishing and SpellTower. Who needs a casual card game in their life? Not me! I never watch cheesy TV shows late at night while simultaneously playing games that don't require my full attention yet exercise my brain in short bursts. I never enjoy unexpectedly deep point systems and strategies that get me closer to those sweet high scores. I never play casually complex games like Threes! or Drop 7. What I’m trying to say is, I have no idea why I spent so much time over the last few minutes telepathically thinking all this so hard at you if I’m clearly not interested in Sage Solitaire!”
“Please stop,” I telepathically reply. “You’re breaking my concentration, and I’ve almost finally unlocked Sage Solitaire’s Vegas Mode.” You instantly die of surprise, because telepathy doesn’t exist.
In 2012 Luca Redwood (EightyEight Games) nailed the puzzle-matcher RPG with his left-field hit 10000000. In 2015, he improved upon perfection with You Must Build a Boat. Complex tile-matching gameplay is given frantic time-constraints when paired with a dungeon crawling hero fighting monsters in the top quadrant of the screen.
Depending on the type of enemy your hero faces, you have to react quickly and strategically to match the right type of tiles. Monster A? Sword tiles. Monster B? Staff tiles. There are also shields, buffs and powerups, muscle and brain tiles to boost stats, and key tiles to unlock chests and defeat spells. Through it all, you build a boat. Every room on the boat has a new purpose--level up your weapon, buy a potion, recruit a monster. I played this game for four days straight and forgot to eat for three of them.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is another game with a plot that you should know as little as possible about before playing. However, it’s good to know what kind of game you’re playing. I like to think of games like this as palimpsest narrative--the past has been written over by the present, and only by a player scrubbing through the present can we uncover the story of the past hidden beneath. Usually this is accomplished through audio logs, and usually only as an additional element of gameplay. Games like Gone Home (and to some extent, SOMA) are a more focused type of palimpsest game that make audio logs the core element of gameplay. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture takes it a step further and combines audio logs with a gorgeous visual component that’s tied to the plot in a clever way.
If it trips you up that it seems like a walking simulator, think of it more as a memory simulator: moments imprinted in a location play out as echoes, allowing you to piece together the lives (and disappearances) of its inhabitants. You’re an observer--things are happening, with or without you. Maybe you’ll see them, maybe you won’t--it forces you to pay attention.
Speaking of audio logs, Her Story is told entirely through “video logs.” They’re out of order, and you only access them through entering keywords into a search bar. And there’s nothing else to it. The mystery is compelling, the writing and acting is top notch, and it compels obsession with detail at the finest grain. It's a shockingly fresh way to tell a story.
So, when I say that I jumped through a wall like the Kool-Aid Man after I heard about Smash Hit in VR, believe me when I say I literally ripped off my own head and triple flip slam dunked it on a basketball net at the top of the Empire State Building when I heard about Minotaur Rescue in VR. If you’ve ever played a Jeff Minter/Llamasoft game before, you have some idea of what to expect. He’s the mind behind dozens of neo-psychedelic arcade games (on systems from Commodore 64 to iOS), including Gridrunner, Tempest 2000, GoatUp, and, of course, Minotaur Rescue.
I'm a fan of this old Minter-esque PC game called Spheres of Chaos, a wildly psychedelic Asteroids clone that uses extremely low visual refresh rates to create maddening fields of color explosions. I’ve always wanted to sink into that world and be surrounded by it. That’s Minotaur Rescue in VR.
Real World Escape Rooms
“But Graham,” you write, in an imagined conversation for a Top Ten Games of 2015 list. “Are real world Escape Rooms even video games?”
“Why no!” I reply, playing along. “They’re not. Technically. But Escape Rooms employ a very similar style of puzzle solving used in video games. Ever play The Room series?
“Oh yeah, totally, I love those,” you say, hypothetically. “That’s what they’re like?”
“Yeah! A lot of Escape Rooms even use blacklights to plant clues, just like the eyepiece clues in The Room.”
“So, wait--why not just put 2015's The Room Three on your list?,” you cleverly parlay, grinning smugly.
“Because I haven’t played it yet!" I yell. "I don’t have time to play every game the second they come out. You think I’ve played Fallout 4 yet? Well guess what, I haven’t!”
“Stop shouting!” you say. “Hey. Wait a second. Didn’t I die earlier? I feel like maybe I died--”
“Seriously, check out an Escape Room sometime,” I say, cutting you off. “2015 is the year they really started to blow up. Most major cities have at least a few. I think you’d have a great time.”
“You know what? I’m getting sick and tired of you thinking you know what I’ll like and what I’m going to say next,” you say next. “You don’t know me! Get out of my head!”
I don’t answer.
“Are you gone yet, you scoundrel?” you read, certain you would never use the word ‘scoundrel.’
I still don't answer.
You wait patiently for my reply.
You forget to eat.
You are dead...