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Meg Jayanth's Top 10 Games of 2015

The award-winning writer of 80 Days tells us about her favorite gaming experiences of the year.

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Meg Jayanth is a London-based freelance writer and digital producer. She won the UK Writers' Guild award for Best Writing in a Video Game for her work on 2014's acclaimed mobile hit 80 Days, and most recently contributed writing to Failbetter Games' 2015 release Sunless Sea. Follow her on Twitter.

10. Minecraft: Story Mode

I'm a fan of Telltale Games--I've liked some series more than others, of course, depending on their content and approach, and my own tastes. But as a whole their games have expanded the space for narrative and choice-driven games, which is altogether admirable. With Minecraft: Story Mode they're rivaling the magic of The Walking Dead Season 1--my personal favourite, closely followed by Game of Thrones-- but from a comedic rather than dramatic angle.

And it is funny, and charming, and a little silly. It's a knowing family-friendly romp of a game which feels like an adventure. It was an inspired choice to set it in a present-day analogue rather than "ye olde fantasy times"--it makes the mythic adventure feel fresh even when it embraces familiar tropes. In a sea of grimdark, cynicism, and life-and-death stakes, it's sometimes wonderful to play a game brimming with a sense of fun.

9. Cibele

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Nina Freeman uses the interface of an online MMO to tell the true story of her first sexual experience: The time she, at 19, fell in love with a boy she played Final Fantasy XI with, and he flew across the country to meet her. In Cibele, Freeman presents a simulacrum of her own computer, full of real youthful selfies, journal entries, and poems, many of them actually kept from that time in her life. Exploring these artifacts made me feel as if I knew young Nina, and gave me a rush of nostalgia. My own experiences growing up online were different, but there's a shared understanding here, a shared vocabulary.

The main arc of Cibele happens in Valtameri, a game-within-a-game whose visual palette is reminiscent of FFXI and other MMOs of its day. You click to cast spells on wicked sprites, but the real reason you're there is to while away hours bonding shyly over voice chat with "Ichi", your guild leader. The audio conversations--in fact, the whole experience of Cibele, assisted by real-world video footage of Freeman herself--felt like a believable record of young love in the digital age and how technology can shape our understanding of intimacy. It's an admirable artistic choice for Freeman to put so much of herself--so honestly--into the work.

8. Dropsy

Lots of people hate clowns, but Dropsy is one to love. This lonesome, damp (?), but optimistic clown stands on the fringes of his strange pastel world, watching and wanting to help--and hug--the humans who fear him. It would be easy for a game like this to trade simply in gross-out humour and creepiness, or indulge unpleasantly in disability jokes (Dropsy is mute and has no hands, just rubber balloon appendages). But there is something so relentlessly pure and sweet about this point and click adventure that it stuck with me all year.

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It feels modern for a point-and-click, simple and intuitive to learn and play. The puzzles were engaging, and I felt challenged without ever being frustrated. And the soundtrack by Chris Schlarb is entirely unlike anything I've heard in an adventure game before; it turns "traversing screens" into atmospheric wanderings through a wan, poignant circus-dream.

7. Hornets

Kitty Horrorshow's Hornets begins with the words "it's your fault the world is ending". It's a beautifully creepy Twine game that unfolds as you try and figure out why and how the world ended. And, maybe more pressingly: what did you do?

Probably it has something to do with the giant, blood-drunk hornets crouching menacingly over the smashed ruins of your town. It is an entirely-invented place, but it feels like a real lost artifact, its markets and landmarks strangely believable. The writing is haunting and delicate, and the game is structured to offer a natural sense of exploration and mystery; it was an interesting conceit to play as a character who knows much more than the player about the world and its circumstances, and continued to do so, even once I had reached the end.

6. Prune

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It feels ridiculous to write words about Prune--the best possible recommendation I could give it would be a series of stills captured from the game. But in short: it's a touchscreen game where you swipe to "prune" away branches and errant limbs to allow your tree to grow and blossom. It's minimalist and elegant, both in its art-style and the way the game carefully adds new elements and impediments to keep play challenging.

But it just feels so good--to play, to look at, to listen to. It's so beautiful that the beauty becomes part of its function. Success is marked by a blossoming of flowers and a plinking of notes--but honestly any given moment of play is as aesthetically and meditatively satisfying as "winning".

5. Renowned Explorers: International Society

Renowned Explorers is a highly replayable strategy game of exploration set in the 19th century with a diverse cast of characters and a sprinkling of narrative content, so how could I resist? The game calls its combat "encounters", and for good reason: you can resolve situations through friendliness, deviousness or aggression, usually through a carefully calibrated combination of all three.

You have to constantly monitor the "mood" of your encounter overall, and that of your combatants and enemies, because the mood alters the efficacy of certain skills and attacks. This adds a great layer of strategic complexity, over and above picking a party of three out of a large cast, each with their own abilities, skills and potential. Personally I love the idea of mood as a tactical element that has to be managed--it makes the encounters feel unusual. (In fact it reminds me a little of the way elemental and terrain effects in Divinity: Original Sin made its combat stand out, a clever twist to bring something new to the genre).

The narrative is at its best when the party's personality and voice make inroads into the little bits of text that pop up as you explore. I wish there was more of that infused all the way through, but Renowned Explorers is nonetheless charming and surprisingly strategically deep and engrossing.

4. Mask of the Sun

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A friend of mine recently introduced me to a swathe of older text-based games, particularly 1980s Apple IIe emulation games. Of the lot, my favourite was Mask of the Sun, released in 1982. It's surprisingly sophisticated and charmingly "animated"--at one point a jaguar statue transforms into a flesh-and-blood jaguar and slinks away. We chuckled a bit to ourselves as we watched it, but all modern cynicism aside, it was a lovely effect and probably pretty impressive in its time.

It also has an interesting approach to inventory management, and some unexpected integrations of "items" and "story"--bad things happen, for instance, if you decide to drop your pills to free up space.

The story opens in medias res, and you discover your circumstances as you play: you are Mac Steele, afflicted explorer in search of a cure in the Aztec ruins of Mexico (see aforementioned pills). I played most of it imagining Mac having a torrid May-December romance with the companion character Raoul, the comely young guide sent to assist you by your contact, a Professor at a local university. This made everything even more fraught and compelling--if you play Mask of the Sun I encourage you to bring some of your own imagination to it. Because of the limitations of space and capability, there is so much room for players in these games, which is joyful.

3. Her Story

Games have a familiar vocabulary. We know what it means to press X, to pull the right trigger, to aim with the mouse, and we speak the language of levelling-up and equipping and fetch-questing. Sometimes it feels like games are a hermetically sealed space, culturally as well as in the skills and vocabulary they require. Which is why it feels like a fresh area of innovation to see games we can play the same way as we 'play' the rest of the world--games that are familiar as Googling.

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So "database searching" doesn't sound like fun, exactly. But Her Story's searches through a 1990s-era database of grainy police footage in an attempt to get to the bottom of a murder actually feels dark and delightful. (And as much as I felt a glorious Windows 3.1 nostalgia, I had to turn on the Anti-Glare Filter for the sake of my modern, pampered eyes). Her Story is a murder mystery that the player has to unpick and assemble from clips of one woman, talking. If the accessibility and simplicity of database browsing feels gently innovative, then asking players to do little more than listen to a woman in an industry that is at times difficult for us, feels practically brave.

2. Summit

A confession: Emily Short asked me to do a review of one of the games in IFComp 2015, and suggested I might like Summit. I never did do that review (sorry Emily!), but she was entirely right to recommend Summit to me. It was very nearly my number one, and some days, their positions are reversed in my affections.

I've said before that Twine as a medium lends itself to conveying a sense of place, and moment, moreso than the passage of time, and space--but Summit makes me reconsider. It is atmospheric, lush, dream-like--all qualities one might expect from a Twine game--but the exceptional thing is that it also effortlessly spans years and decades without losing any of its vividness or clarity.

There is beauty and purpose to be found in each fantastical place in the game, but also an underlying desolation, a bittersweetness that comes through Phantom Williams' prose in combination with Ben Wasserman's music. (You must play it with the sound up.) But the most telling choice in Summit is to linger in these places--learning arts, making connections--or to leave, and continue on your quest to reach the elusive, ever-distant Summit. Both choices feel equally valid, equally terrible--stay and actually live life at the cost of giving up your dream, or go on with your journey but give up the people, places, magics that you are starting to know?

1. Wheels of Aurelia

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Wheels of Aurelia is part driving game, part interactive fiction. The story unfolds through conversation with people that the protagonist, Lella, picks up in her car. You choose Lella's dialogue options and drive her car along the Western Coast of Italy in the 1970s, a time of unrest and political turmoil. It's just so unexpected--a blend of "racing game" and choice-driven story--but so quietly confident in its unexpectedness. It's innovative and novel, but you forget that when you play it: it seems obvious that Wheels of Aurelia should take the shape and form that it's in, because it works so damn well. It feels assured, which is a quality I appreciate as a player.

It is a game of journey, of traversal, and each play-through is relatively short, allowing you to catch glimpses of other lives, other possibilities, before some diversion or interruption. It lends itself to being replayed, not to try and revisit particular moments or set up particular outcomes, but simply to explore the texture and atmosphere of the world.

As that implies, it is in fact a pleasing aesthetic experience, indulgently retro in its art and original soundtrack, without quite crossing the line into twee. But it's the conversations I've had that make Wheels of Aurelia my Game of the Year. The dialogue options are nuanced; Lella is a complex and irreverent protagonist, and she and her passengers discuss everything from love, sex and revolution to religion and politics and culture. The writing is politically charged but feels naturalistic; what it is, in fact, is mature, in all the best senses of the word.

44 Comments

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BillyMaysRIP

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AHHH Renowned Explorers: International Society is a great game. Cool it see it on at least one list :>

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conmulligan

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I hadn't even heard of it before this week, but Wheels of Aurelia sounds really good. Also, 80 Days is phenomenal and you should play it if you haven't already. Great list, Meg!

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Jonny_Anonymous

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Hmm should I play Cibele?

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hassun

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I'm going to wait wil Aurelia until it gets a full release but I'm definitely intrigued by the setting.

Also sorry but I still haven't gotten to 80 Days.

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CageySquid

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Cool list, my little nephew is better at Prune than I am. I love 80 Days, so thanks for that.

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AMyggen

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Great list!

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FCDRandy

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Love lists like this, I've heard of like a third of these games!

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MonkeyKing1969

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Okay, a good list, you don't see Dropsy the Clown too often.

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AlmostSwedish

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Edited By AlmostSwedish

The favorite game of 2015 of the writer of my favorite game of 2016 is one of my favorite games of 2015 as well! That's pretty cool!

@hassun said:

I'm going to wait wil Aurelia until it gets a full release but I'm definitely intrigued by the setting.

Also sorry but I still haven't gotten to 80 Days.

You really should. Both are pretty fantastic, in their own way.

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esoterik

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Last year I hadn't heard of 80 Days until it was mentioned in a bunch of GotY lists and then I played it and loved it, so I guess now I have to play and love all the games I haven't heard of on THIS list.

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Mister_Snig

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80 Days was so much fun. Can't wait to dig into some of these.

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paulunga

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Edited By paulunga

This is a great list of underappreciated, niche games that doesn't feel pretentious at all. Good job! Also, this finally convinced me to check out Cibele (and introduced me to two interesting sounding games I never heard of).

And 80 Days was one of my favorite experiences of the last few years, specifically watching a friend of mine play it and pick completely different choices than I would.

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ShadowSwordmaster

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bacongames

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Fuckin' A someone put Dropsy on their list. Great list, thanks for putting this one out there!

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scottygrayskull

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I passed on Wheels of Aurelia awhile back in one of those indie bundles, despite the appeal of the look and the presentation of the trailer. Seeing it on here multiple times makes me regret that choice.

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noblenerf

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In medias res is a real thing. Huh.

Anyways. Renowned Explorers sounds really cool the way it's described here--another reason to check it out some time, I guess!

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UnsolvedParadox

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Edited By UnsolvedParadox

Saw that Wheels of Aurelia is greenlit on Steam, hope it gets a big audience upon release!

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Yashooo

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Very interesting list!

So far, I'm checking out at least 5 games from this list. Plus I really want to try 80 days also.

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recroulette

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Cool list, a lot of stuff I hadn't heard of but want to check out. Specificaly Hornets.

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megalowho

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Edited By megalowho

Some cool stuff on here, did not expect an Apple IIe game to show up on any of these lists. Very interested in Wheels of Aurelia and Renowned Explorers, gonna give the latter a go this weekend. Huge fan of both 80 Days and Sunless Sea so anything Meg suggests I'm down with, great to see her on the site!

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sparky_buzzsaw

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I'll have to check out Wheels of Aurelia. Looks interesting. Nice list.

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Dave_Tacitus

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@sparky_buzzsaw: I bought it when I saw Austin's list. Like most betas/early access stuff, I'll probably not play it a whole bunch until it's got a proper release but impressions are pretty positive. For me, the driving needs tweaking, as does the text delivery, but what the game's shooting for intrigues me. It could end up pretty special.

Anyway, courtesy of 80 Days getting a PC release in 2015, two of Meg's games made my personal list so I'm really interested in checking out the things she's listed that I've not played.

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Shaanyboi

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I like "weird shit" Top 10s. Also yes, Dropsy is amazing.

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deactivated-582d227526464

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wheels of aurelia looks brilliant, I wish I heard of it sooner

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Slag

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I love lists like this one because they always unearth games I'd never have heard of otherwise.

Wheels of Aurelia sounds fantastic!

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Edited By shawnlreed

It warms my heart to see Mask of the Sun on your list. I'm a huge text adventure fan, and I have fond memories of playing it on my Apple II+ back in 1982. I remember having to call the Ultrasoft hint line a few times when I got stuck. The Serpent's Star is the sequel. It's just as good and well worth checking out.

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Yelo

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@recspec said:

Cool list, a lot of stuff I hadn't heard of but want to check out. Specificaly Hornets.

Same for me, love these lists!

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Ry_Ry

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@slag: same here. Lots of really cool stuff I never would have seen otherwise

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chango

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Super cool list. There's a lot of stuff I'm excited to check out now.

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Wandrecanada

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Man I think I'm gonna break down and get Dropsy...

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Dave_Tacitus

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I've seen Renowned Explorers on a few lists and reading this one finally pushed me into buying it.

Don't think I've enjoyed a strategy game in this style as much since FTL. It stands a great chance of being my 2016 Old Game of the Year. ;)

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oppai2

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80 days is one the best games I played since I started in 1983. Simple and immersive, it is basically all taking place in your own head.

I love inklewriter's sorcery series too.

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MikeLemmer

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Edited By MikeLemmer

Yeah, figuring out what Dropsy should be was a mindbender. At first you think, "Something bad's gonna happen and this game will get cynical as hell to be shocking", but then the game plays it straight and you realize that's actually MORE shocking.

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hippie_genocide

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What an absolutely precious list.

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AssInAss

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Gave it a go after seeing it on some GOTY lists.

Wheels Of Aurelia is actually fun to play! Which I feel needs to be highlighted while people go on about heady stuff like storytelling or whatnot. I just played it for 30min, got 2 endings, and want to get the rest because the driving is fun in itself. That's something I feel is missing sometimes when critics talk about art games.

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tarynboydNRx

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Nice list by this beautiful gamer