Greg Kasavin is a writer and designer at Supergiant Games, the small independent studio behind Transistor and Bastion. Prior to joining Supergiant, Greg worked at 2K Games, Electronic Arts, and GameSpot. He's @kasavin on Twitter.
It seems like 2015 was a really strong and consistent year for gaming, but as for me, for various reasons you could call "going through a phase," I often felt like I didn't have the energy to invest in the latest new releases like I did in years past. That means I didn't get through as many different games as I typically would have, and placed a higher value on games that respected my time or, failing that, utterly consumed my mind. Along these lines, there were a number of games big and small that kept me coming back again and again, or just really impressed me. Here are just some of them!
My Honorable Mentions of 2015
Before I run down my personal top 10, let me first list some of my honorable mentions, as I often find people's lists of top 11 through 20 to be at least as interesting than their top 10.
Games can be stressful, and keeping up with games can be stressful, but Prune is a reminder that games can be something else. It's basically a zen version of Fruit Ninja when you cut up trees to make them grow just so. It's a great example of a unique and fully realized game design made possible by touch devices.
My favorite thing when I was a kid was the cartoon Robotech, and Galak-Z channels a lot of that spirit into an exciting and challenging action game. The core space combat experience at times really did make me feel like an ace pilot in some anime space opera, and it's got plenty of great style in its presentation.
Tons of personality and some good-natured humor distinguish this word game from the droves. It's got a smart design and fun game loop that made me want to complete each stage just to see what ridiculous words I came up with get mad-libbed into the victory screens.
17. Rocket League
The only reason Rocket League isn't way, way higher on this list is because I haven't played more of it. It's a brilliant game that filled me with that sense of "why hasn't someone done this sooner," but really it's the execution quality even more than the design that makes Rocket League deservedly one of the best new multiplayer games in years.
A memorable and unique exploration of the relationship between game makers, game players, and even game critics, presented as a guided tour through a game anthology. Going into it I wondered what the creator of The Stanley Parable could possibly do to follow up that game, and it turns out The Beginner's Guide was the perfect answer.
Man... Starcraft and real-time strategy games have been big parts of my life over the years. There's so much rich design and gameplay packed into this thing that I could play it forever, I suppose, but I found I could only play it for like 30 minutes at a time maybe because RTS games make me feel sort of emotional at this point, since if not for Starcraft II, practically no one would still be making stuff like this.
14. Until Dawn
One of the most fully realized "interactive movie" games I've ever seen. The setup is a straight-ahead slasher flick type of thing, but the details in the presentation and the execution make this one a notable achievement in interactive storytelling. It'd probably be higher on this list had I finished it by now, but given the nature of the experience it can be pretty stressful so my mood hasn't always been right.
13. Axiom Verge
It's always impressive when a great game is made by a small team or even a single person, and Axiom Verge is an excellent example. It's both an homage to Metroid and its own animal, with its own distinct identity. Like last year's Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge feels fresh and modern despite its retro trappings, and it's a great-feeling game packed with that Metroid-style sense of wonder.
Baldur's Gate II is one of my all-time favorite role-playing games, and Pillars of Eternity felt like it was cut from the same cloth. Here's this big sprawling fantasy world you can lose yourself in for hours and hours. It's also always nice to see when a high-profile Kickstarter game really delivers on the original promise, and Pillars of Eternity promised an awful lot.
11. Life is Strange
You know what's scarier to me than horror games? Games that ask me to relive high school. Even still, I knew I had to muster the courage to try Life is Strange, though I've been taking it slow. Not many games have such a pure focus on characters and storytelling, which I really admire. I also really like that Life is Strange plays with how game players make choices in games, inviting you to experience multiple outcomes, knowing many players would likely do this anyway.
My Top 10 Games of 2015
With the honorable mentions out of the way, here are my top 10 picks for the year. You'll never guess what's in the number one spot!
I don't like using the overused expression 'stunningly crafted' but I think it's very appropriate in this case. This game has an impeccable presentation and offers a distinctive take on the Metroidvania format. I sometimes felt like Ori was too challenging for its own good, since it's one of those games where you just wanted to be there in its world and see how the story ends. But the raw challenge proves to be plenty exciting, working in concert with so many other aspects to create a great experience.
9. Her Story
This is a brilliantly conceived and executed example of how well nonlinear storytelling can work as the core of an interactive game. Her Story could have been created at any point in the last couple of decades, following the advent of full-motion video in games. So it's a testament to the quality and ingenuity of the design that it only happened now, making you wonder all the more why no one thought to do this sooner. I found the story itself to be unexpected in all the right ways.
It takes some mad genius to make game design tools even little kids could use yet powerful enough for grown-up nerds, but leave it to Nintendo to pull off such a thing. I loved that I could hand Super Mario Maker over to my kids and see them build expressive, ridiculous stuff in minutes. For my part it made me want to spend all my time making terrible Mario 3-style airship levels. It's loaded with charming details, and is one of those recurring reminders of how Nintendo is maybe the best developer in the world.
7. Fallout 4
The original Fallout is one of my all-time favorite games, and on some level it's amazing to me that the cult-classic RPG series has become this massive AAA juggernaut. But I love that Bethesda has succeeded on getting it there without compromising on its vision of making deep, open-ended single-player games.
I still feel like I've hardly scratched the surface of Fallout 4 but also feel better knowing the world of that game is there for me whenever I need to take a break from this one.
I expect my Metal Gears to be outlandish and fascinating, and boy did Metal Gear Solid V live up to that.
While the narrative aspect of it wasn't always what I hoped for, and I missed the series' signature long-windedness and Snake having a more-active presence in the story, from a mechanics and gameplay standpoint this was just fantastic. Some of the detail and polish in the presentation is just insane. I've been working as a game developer for close to a decade now and still have absolutely no idea how people do some of this stuff.
Here then is a game after my own heart. Much like with Metal Gear Solid V, I wasn't inherently excited by Witcher 3's move to an open-world format. But I was super impressed with the result, which is one of the most stunning-looking and vividly detailed open worlds I've ever seen in a game. I also find it wonderfully ironic that protagonist Geralt, an interesting and nuanced and at times surprisingly funny character, is so easy to prejudge. In his world, he's a mutant not to be trusted, and in ours, he's just another gruff badass fronting just another big-budget production. But those of us who've given Geralt and the game a chance know better.
After Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I knew I wanted to play whatever developer Frictional Games would do next, and this latest effort more than lived up for me. That it's an unnerving, atmospheric horror game is almost secondary to its focused and fascinating exploration of core science fiction themes about identity and consciousness, themes explored successfully in other recent games, and yet SOMA delves into them in its own unique way. I loved the physicality of the game's environments; I've never enjoyed simple actions like opening doors more than here.
Only once I finished Undertale did I realize I'd fallen in love with it. One of the year's most surprising and seemingly inexplicable success stories, Undertale is a very unassuming game and at times a slow burn, but stick with it and you'll see. In my mind this is a game that consists almost exclusively of the kinds of surprising, fun, ridiculous ideas that are first on the chopping block during the development of many other games, due to common sense, budget, time, and so on. But since Undertale was developed mostly by one person, I figure he didn't have to justify this stuff to anyone but himself. The result is a game with tons of heart, a strong clear voice, and so many great little moments that I soon lost count.
Much like the hunters in the world of Bloodborne who get in way over their heads and start becoming obsessed with forces they don't understand, so too did I become very, very preoccupied with Bloodborne and its intoxicating challenge and mystery. Somewhere along the way I realized I was enjoying the blood-drenched, cosmic-horror-tinged world of this game somehow even more than that of the Souls games, and I became just as engaged in trying to piece together the obscure narrative as I was in trying to overcome the game's seemingly endless number of unique challenges. I loved just so many aspects of the game's design, and it more than lived up to my high expectations.
As my boy Rexxar would say, "My apologies." Hearthstone now joins DOTA 2 as a game that cleanly took my personal Game-of-the-Year spot for two years straight. Last year I got into Hearthstone in May just after wrapping up a big project at work. This year I played Hearthstone all the way through, and am still as engaged in it now as ever. I even got pretty good at it, having hit the so-called Legend rank two times now! It helps that the year for Hearthstone ended very strong, as the recent League of Explorers adventure presented some of the most interesting and exciting additions to the game yet, and between the community and Blizzard's own efforts, the game often feels fresh even if you play a lot of it.
On the whole, Hearthstone has been something like the perfect game for me given these days. Endlessly engaging to play, and great fun to think about even when not playing, plus the multiplatform design makes it easy to squeeze in quick sessions here and there. Above all, it is my safe space, where I go to enjoy everything gaming has to offer, without concern.