I play (and love) enough games that I always feel the need to do some sort of game-of-the-year thing. So, here they are, in descending order:
The Beginner’s Guide
In late 2013, developer Davey Wreden (Galactic Cafe) released the game The Stanley Parable. It was brilliant, and hilarious, and quickly swept up a bunch of well-deserved awards. If you haven’t played it, there’s a free demo that doesn’t spoil the game at all (in fact, even if you’ve played the game, it’s still worth playing the demo).
The Stanley Parable was highly successful. The problem is, success and validation can mean different things to different people. And for Davey, it was incredibly problematic.
In 2014, after a period of relative silence, he released this comic on his website:
And then, he went silent again. Until, over a year later, he suddenly announced that he had finished work on a new game, which he would be releasing within a few days. Something that he’d been working on in secret, and allowed for zero pre-release fanfare.
That game was The Beginner’s Guide.
The game is Davey’s attempt to describe what it’s like to struggle with a constant need for validation, and how devastating it can be–especially when it comes to creativity. It’s profoundly personal, and unbelievably effective.
My Steam review for the game was this:
This game reached into my guts and grabbed on to something extremely personal, then squeezed as hard as it could.
No game of 2015 affected me like The Beginner’s Guide. It’s not a game I can recommend to everyone, since it’s so singular in focus and, honestly, it might not make sense to people who don’t struggle with the same issues. But it reduced me to an emotional wreck, to a degree few games ever have. Maybe more than any game ever has.
Judging from the game’s discussion forum on Steam, the game is also one of the most hilariously misunderstood titles of the decade. It’s almost like people are going out of their way to misinterpret, or overinterpret, the game.
Life is Strange
Max is a teenage girl with a complicated life. She’s just moved back to her hometown so she can study photography at the prestigious Blackwell Academy. Her classmates have mixed feelings about the fact that she’s returned. Her best friend, who she hasn’t seen in years, is even more conflicted.
Oh, and a local girl has gone missing.
And a tornado is going to destroy the town in a few days.
And Max knows about the tornado, because she’s developed the ability to travel through time.
You probably already know whether or not you love this game. It’s a perfect time-travel-coming-of-age-indie-film, complete with a killer soundtrack and beautifully washed-out visuals. I’ve written about it before, and had The Beginner’s Guide not utterly destroyed me, it would have been my game of the year. It’s a game with lots of tricks up its sleeve in terms of how it crafts its emotional beats and pacing, and outdoes pretty much every Telltale game in every regard. I’m really excited to see what developer DONTNOD does next.
Oh, and (MASSIVE ENDING SPOILER, highlight to reveal): 100% Team Bae Before Bay.
I’m getting sick of having to point this out, but in the name of full disclosure, I worked with DONTNOD on their previous game, Remember Me. I had nothing to do with Life is Strange. It’s just a damn fine game.
The Talos Principle
Take Portal, quadruple the length, and replace the humour with some hefty philosophy, and you have The Talos Principle. Tom Jubert deserves some serious accolades for his writing on this title. The puzzles are great–there’s very little guesswork, clear but clever solutions, and some really brain-bending moments–but it’s the writing that really kept driving me forward.
The game should get some special recognition for how it controls. It’s a puzzle game, first and foremost, and the controls do everything they can to get out of your way. There’s a snapping mechanism underneath everything that makes what you can and cannot do very clear, so you usually know if your solution is on the right track (for example, you never have to wonder whether or not you can make a particular jump). And you waste almost no time moving around each map–if you know where you’re going, you can always get there fast.
Her Story (Steam, $6.50) – I love games that tell stories in unique ways, and this is probably the most unique experience of 2015. Are we entering a bright new age of FMV games? ONE CAN ONLY HOPE.
Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition (Steam, $44)- I’m totally cheating, because Original Sin was a 2014 title, but the Enhanced Edition came out in 2015 and boasts the best RPG mechanics in years. So, I’m going to include it on my list a second time. Seriously, go play Divinity.
Fallout 4 (Steam, $80 goddamn dollars) – Ugh, sure, have a mention. Is it as engaging as Fallout 3 or New Vegas? No. Is it riddled with bugs? Definitely. Does the writing swing between “serviceable” and “inexplicably dull”? Absolutely. Did they massacre the dialogue system, unceremoniously murdering any semblance of character or choice? That’s a big unforgivable yes. But I also can’t. Stop. Playing.
Games I didn’t get to
There are a few games that came out last year that I haven’t gotten around to yet, but have high hopes for. These are the games I’m most excited to catch up on (some of which I have no excuse, as they’re pretty short):
Cibele (Steam, $10) – Nina Freeman’s autobiographical story of love and sex in the early digital age. Nina’s a clever one, and I’ve already bought Cibele–I just need to carve out a bit of time to play it.
Technobabylon (Steam, $17) – I have a weakness for cyberpunk adventure games. This might be the start of another cyberpunk itch that’s getting exceedingly difficult to scratch.
Invisible, Inc. (Steam, $22) – There’s been so much positive press over this strategy game, and it looks like I’m exactly the target audience for it.
Cradle (Steam, $14) – A Myst-inspired surreal sci-fi adventure by former STALKER developers? Yes, please.