GOTY 2015

Despite how great the year 2015 was for gaming on the whole, I thought I was going to have a lot of trouble with this year’s list. Many of those huge games from this year either didn’t resonate with me (Metal Gear Solid V) or were on platforms I didn’t own (Mario Maker, Until Dawn). Once I finally scrounged together some money at the end of November to pick up a few things I’d missed (on PC), however, I managed to play enough meaningful games to fill out my entire list, despite my limitations. These are the titles that had the biggest impact on me, for one reason or another.

List items

  • I don’t like Life is Strange for the reasons that I feel I should like it. The relationship between Chloe and Max feels forced and rarely pulled at my heartstrings. Max’s voice actress is quite weak, especially when compared to the rest of the cast, and never managed to feel realistic to me. The ending is remarkably predictable, especially for fans of the time travel genre. Despite all these negatives, Life is Strange is still my favorite game of the year. No other game had such an impact on me, keeping me waiting impatiently for the next episode to release so I could see what happens next. If I had to guess why, I’d say it was the tone and feel of Life is Strange that managed to keep me so hooked.

    I loved the aesthetic of the game, a perfectly well-realized high-school setting in a Pacific Northwest region. I loved the way the game offset the choices you make with the power to rewind time, effectively showing how meaningless most of them are in the end. I loved the way it then breaks those rewind powers for certain major choices to actually make them meaningful. I loved the way the developers played with Max’s abilities, creatively shifting the mechanics to keep you guessing. Most of all, however, I absolutely positively ADORED the soundtrack. Few soundtracks manage to wrench as much powerful emotion out of me as this one did. It fits perfectly in a way that very few games manage, so tightly connected that I couldn’t imagine the game without it. I don’t feel crazy saying that the soundtrack is the main reason this game is #1 on my list. It elevates Life is Strange from being just another adventure game, making it something I won’t soon forget.

  • Sam Barlow has proven his skill as a game developer, bringing interesting ideas to his games in both this and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (an absolute favorite of mine). I love how wholly unique Her Story is, a mish-mash of adventure gaming and a true-crime story that has you simply watching video interviews and chasing down keywords. Everything about the experience is fantastic. The aesthetic is top-notch: your old computer desktop, the glare of the fluorescent lights on your monitor, even the hard drive seek noise as you’re looking for videos. “Her” performance is also stellar, telling you everything you need to know about the situation while never being anything but subtle and nuanced. I especially loved the the open-ended nature of the ending, where the game never outright tells you what happened but makes you come up with your own interpretation. It is without a doubt the most unique thing I played all year, taking pieces of other games and making something new out of them..

  • I’m comfortable saying that any Souls game will be on my list for as long as they keep releasing them. Despite playing hundreds of hours of this series, I never get tired of the cycle of wandering into new areas, learning to fight enemies and bosses, and repeating until the game is over. Bloodborne brings another dose of that style of gameplay, along with a welcome challenge and a return to the non-linear exploration that I love. The Victorian/steampunk style is absolutely gorgeous, appealing directly to aesthetic styles I very much adore; it handily surpasses Demon’s Souls as my favorite looking game in the series. I also enjoyed the new focus on aggression, forcing you to attack foes to regain lost health and learn to dodge effectively. Sadly, the game also suffers from a lack of defined character development and gear builds, making replays much less favorable than previous games in the series. Even still, I can’t wait to see what another game in this new spinoff series looks like.

  • The Witcher 3 has some of the best voice acting, storytelling, and worldbuilding I’ve ever seen in a video game. Both the main story and the various side missions of the game had me enthralled and often horrified, dealing with adult themes and ideas in a way that felt mature and real. Each of the villages and cities feels like a very believable place inhabited by actual people going about their lives. The way the game builds on the universe of the past two games is great as well, delving further into the truly fucked up psychology and creation of some of its worst creatures. While I’d love to stop there, I did have problems with the game. The combat, while serviceable, never did much to hold my interest, especially not through several dozen hours. Also, I didn’t enjoy the plain design of the open-world, with many of the side activities being too bland and uninteresting for such an otherwise fascinating universe. Despite its flaws, The Witcher 3 is still a game absolutely worth seeing through.

  • Guitar Hero Live is a game tailored for a very specific kind of rhythm game player. Its focus on rotating channels of music videos to be played along to, instead of DLC you can actually purchase and own, is not something everyone can enjoy. Personally, I find it absolutely perfect for the way I play these types of games, someone who often made playlists filled with random songs to play through in past games. Thanks to the TV structure, I always have random songs to play along with--AND it doesn’t cost me a cent to add new songs to the list. The Live sections are goofy and fun, certainly overacted but still effective at immersing me in the role of being a guitarist on stage. Best of all is the new guitar, a much more challenging and realistic imitation of fake guitar playing that essentially reset my skills; for the first time in years, I have to invest real time to reach the ultimate difficulty and succeed at it consistently. I can’t wait to build my skills back up all over again.

  • SOMA ended up not being what I expected. After the developer’s previous game, Amnesia, I was expecting another tension-filled scarefest, something I’d have to play in hour-long chunks to relieve the stress I’d start feeling. Instead, I was surprised to find something more akin to an adventure game with much fewer moments of horror--albeit some very effective setpiece moments. You utilize the same “click and move the mouse to imitate the action you’re performing” system, along with a bunch of terminal interactions, to solve puzzles. These parts of the game are actually really fun and engaging, making the station feel like a real place. Best of all is the story, which asks some truly fascinating questions about its world and the nature of human consciousness. The ending in particular is one of my favorite moments of the year, a horrifying proposition that left me feeling a bit antsy. It’s a great ride and a fantastic surprise.

  • I actually had next-to-no excitement for a new Fallout in the months leading up to its release. While I enjoyed Fallout 3 (and REALLY enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas), I didn’t really feel like I needed another one right now. After it released, however, I found myself curious enough to check it out--for free, thanks to a gift card I had lying around. My first few hours were bland and boring, making me regret my decision. As I pushed deeper in, finding new companions and side quests, I began to realize the strides forward this game made for the series, particularly in the much more vibrant and interesting setting. That’s not to say the game is flawless, though; many of the same bugs and poor storytelling issues remain (like another awful ending), along with poorly-explained and uninteresting new mechanics. Still, on the whole, I found myself enjoying the time I spent with Fallout 4, even thinking about going back some time in the new future to try out a new build and find those side quests I missed.

  • This idea of this game--cleanup the leftover blood and guts from another game’s messy destruction--seems like the worst concept for a game ever, but I found it absolutely brilliant. You wouldn’t think that cleaning messes in video game form could be made fun, but I found something oddly compelling about making an area entirely spotless, even when it can take upwards of 3 or 4 hours to clean one of the larger areas. While I don’t think the design is entirely perfect, mostly because of too many elements meant to hinder or delay the player’s progress (as well as some glitchy spots here and there), I still spent far too many hours making each of the game’s locations pristine. This isn’t a game I can play on the regular, due to the repetitive nature of its activity, but I will definitely come back to satisfy my compulsive need for perfection every now and then.

  • I’m still unsure of this game’s story: was it meant to be a retelling of real events, a fabrication for the sake of the game, or some mesh of real and imagined elements pieced together from the developer’s life? Even despite my confusion, I still have to admit that this experience was an emotional one, giving an insightful look into the relationship between a person and their idols. I particularly enjoyed the way it looks at how we as fans often try to place meaning into the choices a creator makes in his/her content, reading more into something than necessary and misinterpreting the true tone. Structurally, this game was also fascinating, resembling a documentary in video game form. Being taken through a collated group of work while receiving commentary and notes on it at the same time is something I’d love to see more of in games, especially considering the hushed secrecy that often shrouds game development.

  • This was a rather late addition to my list. As much as I liked the music and gameplay of Crypt of the Necrodancer, I didn’t fall in love with it right away. The upgrades felt meaningless, progression was heavily gated, and the split-second decision-making necessary in the later zones was a bit harsh. I persevered, however, and was rewarded with one of the most intense moments I had in gaming all year: my encounter with the final boss. Learning to overcome that fight also brought a greater understanding of how the game worked, a deeper view of the pattern recognition and timing necessary to beat its harder challenges. Suddenly, the game seemed much easier (but still hard!) and I understood how to play it for real. I wanted to try out the new characters--each with their own unique gameplay styles, some incredibly challenging--and keep going. I plan to spend a lot more time with this in the future, maybe eventually pushing through its greatest challenges.