2015 was a great year for games, all told.
Somehow, both AAA studios and their indie counterparts managed to turn out spectacular, innovative work. The new generation of video game consoles finally came into their own, with some stunning uses of their power for both graphics and gameplay. The industry’s response to GamerGate began in earnest, with studios making serious strides towards hiring diversely and making more games with diverse characters. Storytelling continued to edge its way towards the forefront of game development. And Star Wars made its long-awaited return to AAA games.
There were a few hiccups along the way (most notably Batman: Arkham Knight’s disastrous launch, Steam’s continued lack of community oversight, and Konami’s ongoing feud with Hideo Kojima), but now, looking back at the year, it’s an extraordinarily difficult task trying to assemble a Top Ten games list. So while my top ten will likely change between now and an hour from now, here they are: the Official, Objective 2015 Birth.Movies.Death Games of the Year.
For a while there, Alphabear was all the rage on Twitter. It’s a pretty simple word-finding puzzle game on the surface, but it adds a few mechanics that set it well apart from that packed field. It offers a range of unlockable, cute Alphabears that offer a variety of buffs, and most crucial to its success, lets players share their best words, inserted Mad Libs-style into prefab sentences. For its puzzly, creative strategy, mastery of the mobile gameplay loop, and all-around cuteness, Alphabear is Game of the Year 2015.
Coming from a Souls fan, Bloodborne’s inclusion on this list is kind of a no-brainer, but in several ways, From’s latest ARPG actually confounded and exceeded expectations. Sure, we all knew its combat was going to meet the slick, precise standards of the Souls games, but what I don’t think any of us were ready for was its horror moxie. Starting off in Victorian werewolf pastiche, it worms its way seamlessly into full-blown Lovecraftian nightmare, telling a tragic tale of fallen scholars in the process. The expansion pack is fantastic, too. For its uncompromising gameplay, oppressive atmosphere, and mind-melting story, Bloodborne is Game of the Year 2015.
City-building games have been out of style for years, largely due to the SimCity franchise’s disappointing absence or its disappointing presence. Cities: Skylines came around just at the right time, offering rich and accessible city-building gameplay with a clean graphical style and, with regular updates, increasing depth. It’s a game that can sit in the background quite happily, or be pored over for hours on end. For delivering what SimCity didn’t, and then some, Cities: Skylines is Game of the Year 2015.
Played on a table instead of a screen, Codenames is the latest title from tabletop genius Vlaada Chvatil, whose back catalogue includes games as diverse as Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, and Mage Knight. It’s incredibly simple: two spymasters try to get their teams to guess secret code words using word association. But that simplicity conceals a great amount of depth and hilarity, as it ends up being more a game of second-guessing how your friends’ brains work than a straightforward word game. For its deceptively simple gameplay and the laughs I’ve had, Codenames is Game of the Year 2015.
The 800-pound gorilla of the 2015 gaming year didn’t disappoint. Maybe it hit a little too closely to expectations for some, but for me, it was another opportunity to poke around endlessly in a rich, detailed post-apocalyptic world filled with interesting concepts and characters. It’s by turns funny, exciting, bleak, and scary, and I’m sure to drop more hours into it before I eventually uninstall. For providing a ridiculously deep world of gameplay with trademark Bethesda idiosyncrasy, Fallout 4 is Game of the Year 2015.
A tiny, almost throwaway experimental game from AAA titan Ubisoft, Grow Home isn’t the most impressive title of the year, but it’s one of the most unique. Designed to showcase a new procedural character animation system, it’s about a robot clambering over and nurturing a giant, phallic plant until it reaches its spaceship in orbit. I can’t stress enough how penile this game is, but hypnotic sexual allusions aside, Grow Home’s gameplay is simple, quiet, and calming. It’s a short game, but one unlike any other seen this year. I’d love to see more of these little in-house experiments get released by major studios. For its simple, tactile movement systems and its audaciously sexual subtext, Grow Home is Game of the Year 2015.
Bringing back FMV was a risky move in 2015, but Sam Barlow did it in style, reinventing how game narratives can unfold in the process. Viva Seifert’s performance is one for the ages, subtle and nuanced, somehow telling a detailed story in twenty-second soundbites. The gradual story reveals - nudged towards by the game but ultimately uncovered entirely by the player - are as much a revelation about storytelling itself as they are about the game’s characters. For telling an engrossing tale and proffering an entirely new form of interactive storytelling, Her Story is Game of the Year 2015.
Life Is Strange
The episodic mystery-drama Life Is Strange was one of 2015’s biggest surprises. An American high-school story told by a French studio, its weird story, inspired by the likes of Twin Peaks and Donnie Darko, was complemented by the kind of off-centre view of American life that can only come from foreigners. Its characters spoke strange approximations of high-schooler language, but that didn’t make them any less compelling to watch (or play). Episode after episode, Life Is Strange kept throwing new curveballs at its time-travelling mystery, including some that left my jaw literally hanging open. For taking huge risks with emotion and story, and having them pay off, Life is Strange is Game of the Year 2015.
Over the past couple months, a group of friends and I have been playing through Pandemic Legacy, the narrative, campaign-driven version of Matt Leacock’s classic Pandemic. Like its cousin Risk Legacy, the game unfolds over a series of sessions, each revealing new gameplay mechanics and changing the game irreversibly. There’s a great, tactile sense of permanence in how the game evolves: by unpacking boxes filled with new pieces, putting stickers on the board and cards, and even destroying pieces of the game, the already-high tension of Pandemic gets even higher. For being even more of a tough bastard than the original, Pandemic Legacy is Game of the Year 2015.
Star Wars: Battlefront
Star Wars: Battlefront didn’t reinvent the wheel. Basically, it smoothed some of the hardcore elements off Battlefield and dropped a metric ton of Star Wars fanservice on top of it. Like the movie it released alongside, it’s extremely well-produced comfort food: you can sit back and play round upon round of Battlefront just enjoying the Star Warsiness of it, sometimes surprising yourself at your ability to improve your play. A good match of Battlefront is a magical, incredibly fun thing. Plus, its mobile counterpart Base Command is an oddly addictive little strategy game. For its streamlined person-shooting and slavish devotion to making Star Wars fans happy, Star Wars: Battlefront is Game of the Year 2015.
Honorable mentions that could just as easily have made the top ten would be Besiege, Dying Light, Destiny: The Taken King, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Metal Gear Solid V, Rainbow Six Siege, Rocket League, and Until Dawn. There’s also a lengthy list of games I’ve yet to get around to, including Soma, Undertale, Volume, and so many more. It’s embarrassing, but that’s how rich the bounty was in 2015. And hey, it was a busy year for me. I released a movie. Gimme a break.
Looking forward to 2016, virtual reality is likely to take centre stage, with all three major VR platforms set to launch at some point in the year. As far as games go, aside from obvious franchise instalments like Deus Ex, Dishonored, Mirror’s Edge, XCOM, and Mass Effect, I’m most looking forward to:
- Firewatch, Campo Santo’s stunning-looking exploration and character driven debut;
- The Last Guardian, the long-awaited and possibly fictitious Team Ico adventure;
- Manifold Garden, an Escher-inspired puzzle-platformer;
- No Man’s Sky, the space exploration game with the most unrealistically high expectations ever;
- Superhot, a time-manipulation shooter that just feels intensely cool;
- Tacoma, a space station narrative exploration game from the makers of Gone Home;
- Unravel, an adorable puzzle-platformer about a living yarn creature;
- What Remains of Edith Finch, a curious, genre-defying game from the creators of The Unfinished Swan;
- The Witness, the crazily ambitious puzzler by Jonathan Blow of Braid fame; and
- Yooka-Laylee, the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, one of the best platformers ever.
What did you enjoy playing this year? What are you looking forward to for 2016? Let us know in the comments. Until then, have a great holiday season, and we’ll see you next year!