They came in all shapes and sizes this year (and mostly towards the end). The most startling part was how many were musts -- a year filled with joy and hyperbole.
Undertale does something incredible: it’s a JRPG that exists on its own terms, free of nostalgia in a genre that’s been completely tied to its legacy for a decade. There are a lot of good ideas about what happened to this particular style of role-playing game that so many of us grew up on, but I haven’t played one in awhile so in touch with what drew me to the genre to begin with. Undertale is a linear narrative epic, divorced from grinding and stats, but still filled with memorable people and places. It fans the flames of adventure the way games like Chrono Trigger (1995) and Earthbound (1994) did way back when, and it manages to do all that in a relatively short five-hour playthrough. It is delightful.
9. Life is Strange
For as emotionally draining as Life is Strange can be, it captures the serenity of adolescence with an all too familiar sense of romance and melancholy. It grasps the heightened emotional weight of the everyday and the way that life-changing events get dropped like a brick in the routine of education. Moreover, Life is Strange’s use of branching narrative as a tool to communicate the paralyzing nature of youth is quite clever, and its irresistible small-town aesthetic adds tons of personality to a game with already touching character. It doesn’t get everything right, but it's more courageous than a lot of other games dare to be without feeling cheap or thoughtless.
8. Fallout 4
It's harder than ever for a jack-of-all-trades narrative to meet expectations; to weave the strictest definition of a plot together with emergent scenarios and player-produced elements of self-expression is no easy task. Fallout 4 not only manages all of this with aplomb but does so in the context of a massive and meticulously detailed world. I won’t pretend I don’t feel a twinge of disappointment that Bethesda’s latest work doesn’t quite match the creativity and clever design of Skyrim (2011), but it is nevertheless an altogether impressive achievement and a simply fantastic game.
7. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Reconciling the reality that Metal Gear Solid V is both one of the best AAA games ever made, and also an outright joke (that is simultaneously embarrassing and often laughably bad) has been one of my favourite things to wrap my head around in 2015. For all of the game’s ugly flaws, The Phantom Pain still feels like a trailblazer in modern game design. Its playfulness, the way it breathes cinematic flair into its barren landscape, and the breadth of options it provides make it a high watermark in open world games. That a game with such bad writing and weak characters can still manage to evoke an intense conversation and strong tone is a testament to how successful the rest of the game truly is.
When I look out at the Montreal skyline and see the churches, the buildings, the stillness in the distance, my mind wanders to Bloodborne’s gothic, Lovecraftian world — it’s my new standard for horizons. I’m teasing, but it’s hard not to feel creative inside of From Software’s latest. The layers and layers of intrigue Bloodborne creates using aesthetics and player vulnerability is amazing, and the ever-so-slightly more contextual narrative only adds to its intense sense of discovery. It can never be overstated how impressive it is that players keep their bearings in such intricate levels presented without any kind of map or compass. Brilliant.
I have to applaud SOMA for being so focused; it has a narrative it wants to explore, and it is impressively committed and restrained in delivering it. A lesser game would centre its narrative arcs around twists or set pieces, but SOMA’s story finds a much more natural ebb and flow by focusing on situation, and having its characters come to natural conclusions through their environment. It’s a science fiction story about consciousness —which is something I already love— but SOMA’s incredible pursuit of “claustrophobia-as-horror” is so powerful I get anxious and tense just thinking about it. Using the ocean to affect this is just so potent — there is a simple scene in this game that represents about the scariest thing I can imagine.
4. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture finds an extraordinary beauty in its web of interpersonal relationships. It finds the joy in sadness, the deep sorrow in joy, the power of our spiritual center, and the weakness of our faith. It is meaningfully sincere and convincingly human. Rapture has you wandering through a small community unraveling the thought behind every small moment: the sweet nothings, the callous words, and the reckoning at the end of days. The picture Rapture paints is rich and lovely, but it’s also accompanied by a breathtaking score that would be among my favourite things released this year with or without the rest of the game.
3. Super Mario Maker
No amount of hyperbole will do justice to Super Mario Maker. It’s a masterclass in design, a bible of technique passed on from the herald of modern games, an anthem to one of our medium’s most important series. Super Mario Maker may well be as significant as anything Nintendo has ever made, and it’s nearly impossible to wrap my head around that in a modern context. It feels like the end of an era —a chronicle of our last 30 years as an industry— a look at where we are and where we’re going. I cannot even fathom what it would be like to grow up with a tool like this at my disposal.
2. The Beginner’s Guide
The Beginner’s Guide discusses the adage of a tree falling in the woods through the lens of the creative process. The minutia of self-discovery, taunting brick walls, and the endless internal arguments that go into creating something from nothing, how painful it can be when you stare deadpan at a blank canvas, and nothing comes out. It does all this couched in conversation about what makes a game a game, at a time when every single semantic debate is obsessed with this one and only idea. That The Beginner’s Guide can do all this and tell an emotionally resonant story —with such inspired use of form and structure— elevate it in a way I’ll never forget.
1. Her Story
The ingenuity of Her Story’s gripping web of misdirection, fabrications, and intrigue is spell-binding. That it asks its audience to engage with it physically and mentally —in both passive and active ways— while it establishes story and character is so smart and so inventive. Casting players as homicide detectives faced with an unsolved murder and only whatever evidence was collected way back at the scene of the crime is unbelievably immersive. A lot of this is owed to Viva Seifert’s performance, which is among the best in the medium. All this in a simple, easy to consume package, that still evokes the spirit of play. Her Story is absolutely thrilling.
- Her Story
- The Beginner's Guide
- Super Mario Maker
- Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
- Fallout 4
- Life is Strange
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