Sam Barlow is the designer of 2015's most fascinating interactive fiction experiment, Her Story. He currently works as Game Director at Portsmouth, UK's Climax Studios, working on titles like Silent Hill Origins, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and Aisle. You can find him on Twitter.
I was very busy in 2015. Turns out that releasing an indie game all on your own is a bit of work. Worse: when you’re your own boss, taking time out to play other games feels like a luxury for less busier times. So, I didn’t play that many games. With that in mind, I’d feel uncomfortable announcing a best game kind of list. Instead I’m going to do a Top Ten Best Game NAMES of 2015. As screenwriters are always telling me, at least half of the value of a given script is its title. It’s important! But mainly, I don’t need to have played games to know if their names are good.
Game names are generally crap. I know this firsthand--apart from my Aisle and Her Story, every game I have worked on had its title chosen by the publisher. So I am blessed to have a discography that contains such entries as: Serious Sam: The Next Encounter, Crusty Demons and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I still haven’t bought 2014’s awesome 3DS RPG Bravely Default, largely because of its name. So let’s reward those games that stood out amongst their peers and made 2015 a great year for names!
This is such a good name. Seriously. Its a game where you fall down a well, and as others have pointed out a game where skillful players will fall down well. The game itself is brilliant too. My favorite endless runner is the DS game Touch Yoshi! and Downwell reminds me of that title (not least because Touch Yoshi is one of the few games to--in its first stage--ask players to manage a descent.) Like Yoshi, Downwell sells its repeat-die-repeat-die structure by having a game where it always feels like you can recover yourself. Restarting for a clean run generally feels like more hassle than just gritting your teeth and focusing. Downwell also reminds me of the classy Taito game Rainbow Islands with its panicky verticality. But here the game flips the common sense that has seen 99% of video games task the player with moving up or right. In this game gravity isn’t the barrier between you and your acrobatics, it’s a speed freak flooring the gas pedal. Hell, the game that has a virtual pad control scheme and it somehow transcends that, so it’s clearly a Very Good Game.
This has to be the game name of the year, surely? The Citizen Kane of game names. Maybe. People have been suggesting Mario Paintball for the longest time and we always knew that it’d be good if Nintendo ever put their minds to it. But still, I was surprised at how amazing this turned out to be. The shooting is brilliant, the feel of the paint, the sense of spraying it out in an arc, the schlup! of it. But the traversal takes things to the next level--we’re talking a third person Metroid essentially, with the squid-form providing a high speed Morphball in all but appearance, complete with spiderball powers. Every night before I go to sleep I pray for single player DLC for this game.
3. Plug & Play
Amazing name. You just don’t see that many game names that use idioms well like they do in books and movies. Like Downwell, here’s a name that tells you exactly what you’ll be doing in the game. I’ve never actually played Plug & Play, but I have exhibited next to it at a bunch of shows and that’s allowed me to watch hundreds of people play it themselves. What a delight! A game that makes people laugh, touches them, takes them places. What a tremendous thing.
Is this is a video game? Is it released yet? I guess not, but I got to sit down and play it at Indiecade so try telling my brain I can’t include it. Great name! This one is so good--and contains all of its own DNA--you have to figure the name came first and everything else sprung from it. Good names are so hard to come by that this is the most sensible way to make games. Consentacle is a really interesting game to play too--they should put free copies in every hotel room dresser instead of the Bible.
Another portmanteau in a year that clearly was perhaps the strongest on record for portmanteaus. Vectorpark’s work was one of the first things I discovered on the internet that felt magical, back in the days of Mosaic browser. Ever since I’ve followed his work with excitement. Metamorphabet is perfect the most straightforward thing he’s done… ditching the kinds of transcendental adventures of the original Vector Park or Windosill for something that is more akin to a toy box (simply: a collection of magical alphabet letters that take on the form of the words they spell out.) But what it gains by doing this is a doubling down on the tactile physicality and surreal elasticity that is his signature look. You stroke, touch and prod these creations and they react, and sometimes transform. Everything feels special. There’s an ostrich in this game that feels more alive than any AAA dog companion we’ve seen this year. In the end you will agree that it is a profound shame there are only twenty six letters in the alphabet.
Not enough games are named after names. We love to name games after job titles (Tomb Raider, Hitman, Wing Commander, Celebrity Dentist Doctor) but rarely do we name games with people’s names in the way that great novels or films manage to. Where is our Hamlet? Our Emma? Our Carrie? I guess this is an acknowledgement of the fact that so few games are character driven pieces. We’re happy to sell a fantasy, a costume for your to step into, but less comfortable promising you the specificity of a particular, singular character. Not so with Nina Freeman’s CIBELE! I was surprised by Cibele--surprised that the game’s awkward, up-close FMV sequences didn’t feel voyeuristic, but felt intimate and promoted empathy. The game straddles the line of having you inhabit the shoes of your character whilst she also retains some autonomy. It’s an autobiographical piece, but somehow you’re able to slip in and see through the protagonist's eyes. It bodes well for Fullbright’s Tacoma (on which Freeman is working), because this is the kind of balance I’d have loved to have seen in Gone Home--it’s a coming-of-age story that doesn’t have the archaeological distance of the System Shock format.
This shouldn’t really be here, because it’s not a great name. It should be--it’s simple, clear and it’s the game’s verb right there, in your face. But there’s the associations. Prunes are the laughing stock of the dried fruit world. They aid your digestion. That’s not a good look. And yet. And yet, the game the name is attached to is so evocative and well executed, that it has started to reprogram my brain. Prune is now almost a cool word. The game is very much of the World of Goo school--a monochromatic puzzle game with neat physic-ish behaviors; an atmosphere that is otherworldly and Romantic; and a story that exists almost entirely as metaphor. It’s a lovely thing.
I worked with Psyonix on a project once and I remember them telling me about their downloadable title, called something like "Super rocket powered soccer cars with bombs." I must admit I glazed over a little. But what a difference a name makes! I’m sure they tweaked the gameplay a little too, but all it took was a change of name and now you have a phenomenon.
9. 3D Out Run
The original Out Run had a very special name, so it’s hard to imagine how you’d go about improving on it. Sega and M2 showed us how--prefix ‘3D’ to the name and you’re laughing. Like all the other 3D ports M2 have developed, this is a wonderful example of how to restore and reinvigorate a classic. True to Yu Suzuki’s description of this as being more of a ‘driving game’ than a ‘racing game’, 3D Out Run has been my go-to game for relaxation and sheer pleasure in 2015.
Developers The Chinese Room have real pedigree here of course. First with Dear Esther, a fabulous name which cut through the piles of crap game names like a hug in a riot back a few years back. And the underrated Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs--a candidate for an all-time best subtitle list. Now we have Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. I love pretty much everything about this name. The game has been gestating for a long while now and the big shame of its release in 2015 was that it now exists and is no longer an awesome name for me to project ideas onto whilst listening to Jessica Curry’s lush music. I wait with baited breath to hear about The Chinese Room’s next name.
So that’s the top ten. Clearly I’ve omitted the good games with bad names--but that’s justified because in this day and age there really is no excuse for shipping with a shoddy name. When you’re spending fifty million dollars or whatever on a marketing campaign you owe your players a good name. The badly named will go unnamed and in time be justly forgotten.
Bonus Entry: FJORDS by Kyle Reimergartin. This game came out in 2013 so I can’t include it. BUT, it’s a game that has appeared on far too few GOTY lists and has been played by far too few people. I’ve re-visited it throughout 2015 so I’m going to pretend this is legit. FJORDS is a marvel and manages to be as mysterious and evocative as its name. There are so many clever things going on in this game and it manages to evoke nostalgia whilst utterly reworking and remixing the core experiences at the heart. It takes our memories of 8-bit exploratory platformers and the perenial indie favorite of the glitch aesthetic and does something genuinely magical with them.