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GOTY 2015

When constructing a Game of the Year list, I always like to adopt a sort of unified theme behind the games that I've chosen to highlight as the year's best. In 2015, that guiding philosophy is "I didn't have a whole lot of money this year, so here's a bunch of small games and Indies that I either bought for less than ten quid or were given to me." A bold strategy for a top ten, perhaps, but I think my readers deserve a layered critique.

I'd also like to promote the Go! Go! GOTY daily series which helped me finalize this year's top ten. If nothing else, it offers additional insight into the games I discovered in December, many of which made their way onto this list.

(Future Spoilers: I fully intend to add to this list later, retroactively adding 2015 games as I play them in the years to follow. They'll all go below the top ten as it stands right now in order to preserve it, though their inclusion is to suggest that they almost certainly would've made it into the top ten had the circumstances been different and are every bit as praise-worthy. Hey, it's the best way of getting around the fact that I barely played anything new this year.)

List items

  • It's a commendable thing to faithfully recreate a nostalgic throwback, retaining everything that made those old games great while subtly adding enough modern features to eliminate outmoded annoyances, but it's something else entirely to build a game just like them from scratch and still feel every bit as authentic. Pillars of Eternity does an impossible task producing an Infinity Engine D&D game of a comparative quality to Baldur's Gate without actually using the D&D ruleset or leaning on the rich lore of the Forgotten Realms universe (or the various other extant D&D campaign settings) for narrative support. It almost sounds like the CRPG developer equivalent of one of those master-tier "MLG" restrictions people invent for themselves for their favorite games, like the Nuzlocke Pokemon challenge or never wearing armor in Dark Souls.

    Everything in Pillars of Eternity is bespoke beyond the superficial isometric familiarity: the world is brand new and filled with incidental lore that you'll continue to uncover as the game progresses, with plenty of settings and regions left for sequels to explore; its original ruleset doubles-down on the various aspects of the D&D ruleset that work best in a video game adaptation, but with its own classes and spells and combat rules; and it has a franchise-founding confidence you might not otherwise expect from a Kickstarter-funded game that had to make every dollar count. Couple all that with fantastic writing and character development, an ever-present trademark of Obsidian, and a lengthy campaign that really shows off the world that they've built and all the mechanics they've implemented and painstakingly balanced. Sometimes a game like this feels like a bare-bones precursor of what might be possible further down the road with more funds and a bigger audience, but Pillars of Eternity popped out fully-formed and ready to take its audience on an enormous adventure that's easily the peer of anything that inspired it.

  • Super Mario Maker's journey from a cute idea for a throwaway downloadable eShop game to the Wii U's killer app is a fascinating one, mostly because the game relies on strengths that are almost always Nintendo's weaknesses: a robust online component and a capacity to let its hair down and get silly with some venerable franchises. It's fair to say that the number of bizarre abominations created from the graphical tilesets of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World means that I'll never look at any of those classic games the same way ever again, even if Super Mario Maker doesn't quite carry over all the inventive elements that made those games stand out from one another. It's lacking the overworlds, for one, and a number of mechanics that it may well introduce to the level editor at a later time.

    Super Mario Maker hasn't just been great fun to play and ridiculous value for money - Nintendo gambled big on procuring a huge community of volunteer level-creators, and it paid off thanks in part to just how simple it is to use the tool set provided - but it's also been the source of some of the year's most essential viewing. Watching the Giant Bomb crew build levels using the devious and downright antisocial suggestions from the chat and then cackling at poor old "Professional Youtuber" Patrick Klepek as he falls for every trap was entertaining as hell, and that Jeff has now joined Dan in a journey to the dark side as they continue to build insidious levels is both a joy and a horror to watch unfold. It's also allowed me to fully appreciate the MiiVerse, as I'm able to derive additional fun from dropping all kinds of dumb comments in there for the creators to enjoy after I beat their levels. Nothing's made me happier to be a Wii U owner this year. Or ever.

  • It's perhaps a little rote to compliment Undertale right now, as it continues to conquer the internet to the chagrin of all the "serious" gamers that had written off the little Indie RPG that could based on its unimpressive art style and jokes about spaghetti. Undertale is still a fantastic treat for anyone who hasn't yet fallen for its unassuming charms, beating heart and intelligent meta commentary. It's one of those Indie games that can make you think about why and how you play games, but it doesn't need to do so with sneering cynicism, overt pathos or pretentious magniloquence (like using the word "magniloquence" in a video game review). It does so with gentle goofy humor, holding a mirror up to the player's decisions, combat mechanics and strategies that require empathy and reflexes over repetitively spamming through menus, and one of the catchiest and quirkiest soundtracks of the year. Both the endings I saw counted among the year's most satisfying.

    Even if "tru gamurz" are decrying this thing for depriving Sephiroth and co. of another GameFAQs trophy for their mantle, it has a lot to offer both them and an audience of filthy casuals who can just enjoy its story, characters and simple-to-grasp gameplay. It asks the player why they feel it's okay to mow down every random encounter that pops their way, or why they choose to spare an irredeemable monster that'll clearly come back and make life difficult for them. It molds its world and the attitudes of its characters to reflect what the player is doing to them; what they're choosing to do to them, because they can. And because players can play a game a certain way, the game posits, they will. In addition, the game will never forget what the player did, even if they scrub their saves, restart from the beginning and try a different approach. All from a video game that lets you date a skeleton, talk anime shop with a triceratops and lie on the ground feeling like garbage with a ghost.

  • For its lengthy five episode arc of eventful storytelling, impressive stylistic graphics and a thoughtfully considered Indie music licensed soundtrack, Life is Strange is all about smallness. Not just the smallness of living in a tiny unremarkable seaside town in Oregon, or the smallness of the teenage drama cycle, or even the smallness of the little details that each character will proffer to any player willing to snoop around their room or ask about candidly. It's about how every choice a person makes, no matter how small, can balloon into something unimaginably devastating. When wallflower photography student Max Caulfield discovers her ability to rewind and pause time, she doesn't feel about it the same way as her previously-estranged impulsive best friend and teen rebel Chloe Price, who determines that someone could take over the world with such an ability. Rather, Max just wants to use it to ensure the people around her are happy and safe, and maybe improve her relationships with them. That she progressively becomes more fearless and assertive as her powers grow is more a narrative justification for the player taking over her life and making bold decisions she might've otherwise balked at if not the fact that she could rewind and try a different tack.

    I had the good fortune to play the game like I would watch a modern TV show: over a series of days, rather than waiting long periods between episodes. Time's going to tell if that's a preferred media consumption scenario, allowing a whole season's arc to come together more clearly at the cost of not having the time to digest each episode and consider them individually on their own merits, but I found that it really works wonders for dilemma-based adventure games like this. You make so many micro-decisions in every chapter, some based on binary choices and others based on whether or not you discovered the right detail or NPC to trigger them, and you understand the repercussions of them almost immediately after instead of forgetting about them in the lengthy interim. While Life is Strange has a handful of standard "adventure game puzzles", it's far more a narratively-dense game with a handful of interactive elements. That isn't to denigrate it as a game; indeed, those interactive elements are what raises the story from a simple tale about friendship, love and fitting in with the crowd via a magical realism sci-fi angle - something akin to a Groundhog Day with more jokes about fucking selfies - to one that becomes more impactful for the viewer because they helped shape its course. I'll continue to follow games like Life is Strange and other narratively-focused Indie games with great interest, and I hope prolific (and up-and-coming) fiction authors do the same. We'll drag this medium kicking and screaming towards artistic legitimacy yet.

  • A similar case to the above, Her Story takes the narrative possibilities unique to the video game format into an as-of-then unexplored direction. The player is effectively building their own story from the building blocks presented to them, piecing it together by tracking down key pieces of information and following leads to their eventual dead-ends. While playing Her Story and watching a sensational Viva Seifert go from agitated to wistful to morose to defiant as she is grilled by police over the vanishing of her husband Simon, the player is forever closely observing her words and her actions. Each new piece of information - a name, a place, an object of some significance - triggers a fevered search for context and further leads, and the big picture only begins to develop after so many figurative puzzle pieces have been found and placed.

    Yet the game's masterstroke is that there isn't a true endpoint. The game will simply ask if you've heard everything you need to make up your mind about the woman in the video, and whether or not she actually had anything to do with her husband's disappearance. There's no big conclusion, no parlor room scene where you dramatically reveal who did it to a room of pensive suspicious characters as the game helpfully fills in the blanks, no theatrically pointing at a rival prosecutor when a new revelation that breaks the case wide open strikes you, no real closure even. You can view every video clip - many don't offer anything, besides inconsequential filler, impromptu guitar songs and red herring anecdotes - but it's down to the player what they choose to believe and how satisfied they are with what they've uncovered, and that type of open-ended, personal preference conclusion is not a common one.

  • While I appreciate the unconventional adventure games, the ones that take video game narratives in bold new tangents, there's a lot to be said for the throwbacks that try to preserve the genre's older ways by only allowing the player to see more of the story after they've figured out how to complete a series of objectives or collect a cornucopia of plot-valuable junk via humorously obtuse means. The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is perhaps the best adventure game of that format that I've ever played, more so even than the many LucasArts classics that clearly inspired it along with less famous 90s adventures like Simon the Sorcerer and the Discworld graphic adventure games.

    The trio of playable adventurers (and their furry purple alien buddy) have varying levels of competency, but they're beacons of sanity compared to the weirdos that populate the illogical and meta-friendly fantasy world they inhabit. The game is immense: each scenario can take hours to complete, and there's a great many of them that comprise a loosely-told story about a powerful force of evil in the hands of a little girl who is far too attached to turning everything pink, cute and candy-sweet. For all its self-effacing jokes about being sent on errands before they can get any answers, the game is wall-to-wall filled with imaginative puzzles. It also has beautiful settings drawn in a Disney-esque fairytale style; an array of convenient and user-friendly features - like hitting tab to reveal hotspots and removing said hotspots once they've been examined to eliminate them as possible vital components - to help mitigate the usual adventure game confusion and stonewalling; and quippy, reference-filled dialogue that is rarely hilarious but will keep a smile on your face throughout. It won't be to everyone's tastes, but the developers have a genuine fondness for the older era of adventure games and invites anyone with a similar affection to join them.

  • Likewise, Wadjet Eye have a keen sense of where - or rather when - adventure games are at their best. Sticking to traditional elements of 90s adventure gaming with its detailed 2D backdrops and moderately well-acted voice cast, Technobabylon is the latest in a series of well-written and grown-up stories from the prolific Indie adventure game developer with various themes regarding transhumanity, technological advancement and what the world might be like in a few decades' time if we continue on the course we're on, as our self-destructive and socially-progressive tendencies battle to shape our future. Created in tandem with Technobabylon's original author Technocrat Games, who produced a smaller freeware version of the game in Adventure Game Studio before Wadjet stepped in to help expand the project, Technobabylon tells a story from the perspective of three (or four) very different characters who find themselves embroiled as pawns in a conspiracy to bring down their near-future city's all-encompassing municipality-governing master computer "Central".

    As with The Book of Unwritten Tales 2, each step of the plot can only proceed once the player has completed a task that requires some keen investigating and puzzle-solving skills: deducing who tried to assassinate a room full of people with a suicide bomber; working out how to procure a vital piece of evidence by manipulating the AI programs of "synthetics"; helping a scientist to uncover an important message left behind by another character in the junk DNA of plant samples. Some feel a bit more contrived than others, but each of the game's little scenarios are self-contained and logical, and it's unlikely a player will remained stymied for long with the game's clever streamlining of its moving parts. Wadjet Eye have really put together an impressive library so far, and I look forward to whatever they do next.

  • Grow Home was an early surprise this year: a game developed by Ubisoft that wasn't filled with irksome online components or sequel hooks. It did, however, involve climbing a really tall thing to take in impressive vistas, but that's one bad habit I won't fault them for this time. Grow Home involves taking an enormous star plant and helping it to thrive by directing its branches and roots towards new sources of energy. The energy, in this case, is a glowing ore that can be found on any number of floating rocks scattered across the sky. As you keep growing the plant, the game's sense of the vertiginous becomes all the more potent and it's all you can do to keep climbing and try to avoid looking down. The climbing is both the game's most endearing and frustrating feature: an ongoing game of QWOP where the player controls both hands of their robot protagonist separately, and must make alternate upward motions in order to get anywhere. As they collect more of the game's gemstones, they'll unlock new abilities that help them stay airborne for longer. A late-game addition also provides more reason to search around the game's lofty settings, as bonuses are given for dragging occasionally-unwilling flora and fauna to the nearest save point so that they can be scanned for the ship's biological logs.

    What I enjoyed most about Grow Home, and just my luck because it's also the hardest aspect to put into words, is just how chill it all is. Even if you plummet a thousand feet to your crater-esque demise, there's no real sense of hurry or danger. The game's soundtrack is a very abstract series of long notes that creates a feeling of peaceful euphoria, and the player is free to pursue nodes of energy with their searching plant tendrils or crawl around a hovering boulder to pull out a shiny gemstone from its back at their own pace. While looking down isn't generally recommended, it's worth doing so occasionally just to get a sense of both the game's impressive scale and the satisfaction of making it so far up. I don't know if it's identical to the feeling of elation mountaineers have when looking down on the world stretched out before them from their immensely high vantage points, but it's probably close.

  • I really wasn't expecting to like Citizens of Earth as much as I did. A game that takes both the populous parties of Suikoden and a bizarre alternative version of the United States as a setting like EarthBound sounds great on paper, but I'd heard mixed things about the actual execution. I was happy to discover that the game didn't mess up the landing after all. Having multiple party members to slot into the game's standard turn-based JRPG combat made it appealing and varied enough that it never felt like a slog - and enemies are visible on the map anyway, so you can avoid them or instantly destroy weaker groups quite easily - and it feeds my habit of going into every open-world RPG running around accomplishing a dozen side-quests at once in lieu of actually paying attention to whatever critical story mission needs doing.

    The jokes don't always land, and there's a lot of repetition in the level design, but there's such a vast number of brilliant features and ideas cribbed from the last decade or so of contemporary JRPG design - including a few novel touches of its own - that I can't help but admire the amount of craft and know how that went into the game. It's every bit the JRPG-fan's JRPG that Undertale is.

  • A case similar to Grow Home, Box Boy was a little game that came out of nowhere and cost next to nothing that nonetheless managed to charm the heck out of everyone who played it. Rendering its world in as minimalist and monochrome a style as possible, the goal of Box Boy was to expand one's form in various directions to make your way past traps and obstacles, collecting all the optional crowns along the way. The game's cleverness came in how certain box formations performed differently: blocks you create around you are impervious to harm, allowing them to act as shields; by adding an L-shaped hook to the top, you can use it to hitch onto higher platforms like a grappling hook; you can slough off parts and use them as platforms and as spike-covering floors.

    The game never stops finding new applications for this central gimmick either: it'll continue to introduce and build elaborate puzzles around them as the game reaches its conclusion, but there's nothing stopping an inventive player from discovering them earlier either. They can often then use the information they've gleaned to go back and collect some of the crowns they missed. Though limited by a finite number of blocks to generate per level, and it tracks how many are on the screen at once as well as how many you've used and discarded so far, this limitation forces you to concentrate on efficiency and workaround solutions when you just don't have quite enough for the easier, more obvious route. Puzzle platformers may be a dime a dozen, but HAL Laboratory proved they have the chops for brilliant game design regardless of whether or not it happens to involve a floating pink puffball.