It was a hell of a year for video games, a wonderful mixture of long-awaited games living up to their potential, and unexpected delights that completely snuck up on me.
One big difference with 2015 was the way I played video games. As someone who avoids multiplayer games, I’m quickly bouncing from one game to the next. But several times this year, I stuck with a game for weeks or months. Some of them I can easily see myself playing regularly years from now!
Maybe it’s a spoiler, but there’s one game I’m surprised isn’t on my list: Fallout 4. I’ve poured more than 30 hours into the game at this point, and while I’m definitely “enjoying” it, it’s been a massive disappointment. I put literal days into Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I’m not playing Fallout 4 out of obligation--again, I do like it--but it commits the sin of boredom. Boston is boring. The quests are boring. The skeleton of the games I love is here, but the heart is gone. Maybe I’ll find it somewhere else in the wasteland, but dang, it pains me to not adore Fallout 4.
Thankfully, there were lots and lots of other games to adore in 2015.
I spent a chunk of last year’s Game of the Year podcasts rolling my eyes at Brad Shoemaker’s endless determination for Destiny to land onto the staff’s top ten list. Know this: Jeff Gerstmann allowed this voting crime to happen on his watch. Though vanilla Destiny was one of 2014’s biggest disappointments, I remained curious. What the hell did so many people see in this lackluster game? The Taken King was the answer. Proper loot drops? Check. A story that humans can follow? Check. The dedication to lord RNG was real, my friends. But more importantly, I understood what it was like to have a daily check-in game, as The Taken King became my comfort food. When I wasn’t in the mood for anything in particular, I’d run a few strikes. When I had a Friday night to myself, wife out of town, it became time to learn what a raid was. (It was awesome, by the way.) And though I admit this with a sense of shame, I did look forward to seeing what my boy Xur was hiding in his store every week. As with most loot games, the charm eventually wore off. I’d seen everything I wanted to see, looted everything I wanted to loot. But now, I get it--Destiny is rad. It wasn’t last year, but it is now.
As we get older, our tastes get boring and crusty. The same old shit makes you feel good, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. The past few years, games like Spelunky, Fire Emblem, and Dark Souls introduced me to radically different types of games, stuff I’d written off as “not my type.” This year, Rocket League did the same thing. “I don’t play multiplayer games” is something I’ve muttered on a podcast or written in an article a billion times. “I don’t have time.” “Everyone is better than me.” But for a brief moment in the summer of 2015, that wasn’t true. All of my spare time was spent climbing the leaderboards in Rocket League, as I discovered the problem had more to do with the kinds of multiplayer games I was playing, not multiplayer gaming period. Rocket League is dead ass simple, and therein lies its brilliance. There’s a ball in the middle of the arena--now put it in the goal. It’s easy to imagine a version of Rocket League with vehicle customization, power-ups, and different player classes to choose from. There’s no way I’d have fallen for Rocket League if that were true. Brutal simplicity is what brought me and millions of other to the table, and I’m thankful for it. Nice shot!
If this were a list of the best looking games from 2015, lemme tell you: Ori and the Blind Forest would be a heck of a lot higher. This game was so good looking, the graphics actually interfered with your ability to play! I’m not joking, either. The art literally got in the way of your ability to make jumps sometimes. Not that it mattered; Ori and the Blind Forest was far more than a pretty piece of interactive art--it was a great-playing game. The controls were spot-on, with a tough-to-articulate precision that begs comparisons reserved for platforming’s elite, like Super Meat Boy. I blew through Ori and the Blind Forest so fast that it upset me. Each percentage of the map I cleared was both an acknowledgement of my progress and recognition that I was one step closer to finishing the game. My biggest beef? The game committed a cardinal sin for Metroid-inspired games: not allowing players to clear the map by returning to old areas. You can do this for most of the game, but one section is walled off. Even as I write this, it bugs me. Thankfully, the rest was spectacular. You’re forgiven, Ori.
Let’s put our cards on the table about this franchise. The first Metal Gear is spectacular. The second one is garbage. Can anyone tell me what happened? Don’t tell me. I don’t want to live through it again. The third Metal Gear is one of the best games ever, with an ending so spectacular and poignant that I’m almost--almost--willing to forgive Kojima for the gross stuff he puts in his games. The fourth one is the second game but with even more story garbage. This flip-flop is why I was so excited for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain--Kojima was making a game for me again! And boy, did he. While other developers take “open world” to mean a big landscape with nothing to do, The Phantom Pain was restrained. The world is spacious but tight and hand-crafted. Importantly, all the gameplay lessons from the previous games paid off in spades, with the best playing Metal Gear yet. Not only could you do exactly what you wanted to, there were endless opportunities for player improvisation--even the most routine mission could hold surprises. But let me be clear: Quiet was some hot bullshit. I’m fine with Kojima being a pervert, but at least be honest about it. A potentially interesting character given no chance to be more than a sex object. Remember the rain dance? Sigh.
I’d like to thank Vinny Caravella for his passionate defense of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings from a few years ago, which put this series on the map for me. CD Projekt RED nailed the sequel, too, maintaining the spirit and fun of the last game while vastly expanding its ambitions for narrative and gameplay. I’ve had a pet theory for a few years now, too. When Bethesda Game Studios shipped The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, it (rightly) blew everyone away. This continued with Fallout 3 and Skyrim. Boom, boom, boom. Their constant iteration on systemically-driven open worlds was so ahead of the curve, and when technology finally caught up enough to make it look cool, it was amazing. But, the storytelling, combat, and other elements has always been a little lackluster! More lows than highs. Now, studios like CD Projekt RED are catching up to what Bethesda is good at faster than Bethesda can figure out everything else. I’m not gonna be surprised if CD Projekt RED eats Bethesda’s lunch with the next game. Did you experience anything like The Bloody Baron in Fallout 4? Not even close.
5. Until Dawn
Around the time Heavy Rain came out, I was sitting at a San Francisco bar with a few friends in the industry. We were shooting the shit, trading gossip, and someone asked what kind of game I’d make, if I had a chance to snap my fingers. My answer? Friday the 13th in the style of Heavy Rain. Patience is truly a virtue, as someone must have overheard my drunk musings--Until Dawn is that game. It’s smarter than it initially suggests, too, a game trading in, and playing off of, the horror genre’s most overused tropes. The final girl. The black guy who dies immediately. The dumb blonde. You can enjoy Until Dawn without understanding its history, a tight rope nicely walked by the writers. Players choose whether to subvert those tropes or not, as the keys to death’s door are handed over to you. Nothing’s a guarantee, though; Until Dawn cleverly pushes back on your own desires and expectations, killing characters off with zero hesitation. Filled with endless, shameless jump scares, my wife and I had to close the windows, fearing the neighbors might suspect the screaming was reason to worry. But we hurried back to the couch, cold beers nearby, and placed the fate of slasher fodder into our hands.
Anyone who finished Amnesia: The Dark Descent deserved a bragging rights t-shirt. The last horror game from Frictional Games single-handedly shifted the genre’s tempo from player empowerment--what’s your favorite gun to dismember creatures with?--to stripping them of everything. In the years since, Amnesia’s influence can be found everywhere, culminating in last year’s Alien: Isolation. A big budget take on the concept, Alien: Isolation upped the ante by pouring huge amounts of resources into giving the Xenomorph a life of its own. It worked. Weirdly, SOMA’s monsters are its biggest weakness, an obstacle to overcome in search of the game’s disturbing story. More than once, SOMA left me weak at the knees, as I mulled and contemplated the game’s big questions about humanity. SOMA asks players to confront painful notions about the meaning of life, culminating in an ending that left me breathless. That’s to say nothing of the uncomfortable moments where players face painfully vague moral choices that most games boil down to “yes” or “no.” I’m still thinking about one near the end of the game. SOMA players, remember being given a choice about a… last wish? I do. Man, I do.
It’s impressive a game with a cringeworthy line like “go fuck your selfie” is so high on my list, but here we are. The first episode provided an intriguing, if well-trodden, sci-fi premise that held promise because the ability to manipulate time remains a neat mechanic. That barely went anywhere in Life Is Strange, and it’s not the reason I stuck around for five episodes. Life Is Strange worked because of the endearing, believable relationship between Max Caulfield and Chloe Price. Whatever you think of the direction their relationship went in as the series goes on--I wasn’t into it, then fell hard--I couldn’t stay away from them rekindling a fractured friendship. Despite the clumsy dialogue, it felt real--or real enough, anyway. Perhaps my fondness for Life Is Strange is driven by the painfully low standards we have for two women leading a video game--a noteworthy point all its own--but I was rooting for them (and the game) the whole way through. This game explores some deep shit, too. The end of the third episode. The beginning of the fourth episode. The final moments. Since The Walking Dead’s first season, no other episodic game became a must-play as soon as it was available. Life Is Strange was.
Ah, redemption. Someone could easily dig up a few painful quotes from old Bombcasts where I dismiss Dark Souls as a game for masochists, an experience for old school fetishists. How naive you were, young Patrick. As I learned from playing the game later, Dark Souls was the best game from that year. (Sorry, Skyrim.) If if it weren’t for an unexpected series of events--RYYYYYCKERRRTT!!!--Bloodborne would be at the top of my list this year, too. Lordy, it’s good. A fiendish reinvention of the Souls formula, Bloodborne strips players of their most reliable companion, the shield, and asks them to flip the script, get in close, and be aggressive. It pushes players to change old, reliable tactics and adapt. I’m a better player because of it. Few things are more satisfying than beating a FromSoftware-designed boss in a Souls game, knowing it’s engineered to both trick you and teach you. Bloodborne is a game that makes me proud of my accomplishments--a rare feat. It’s certainly not for everyone, but for the people it speaks to, it’s basically religion. I can’t wait to head back to church.
This is where Bloodborne is supposed to be. The only reason it’s not here is of Dan Ryckert. Dan might be a piece of human garbage who can’t handle a sandwich with mayo on it, but our rivalry was the most fun I’ve had with a game in 2015. Super Mario Maker has big issues! Most notably, it’s too hard to find good levels. Nintendo screwed that up. (A recent update took some important steps towards fixing that.) That should knock Super Mario Maker down a few notches, but I’ve avoided that problem because someone has been creating levels for me the past few months. I can’t tell you how weird that’s been. Most levels are meant to trip up the general populous, while these specifically prey upon my physical and psychological weaknesses as a Mario player. People keep asking me to build a level, but I don’t have any interest. I want to play levels, and I’m glad people like Dan will keep pushing me. I may have found my forever game with Super Mario Maker.