Most years when I do Game of the Year recaps I start off with a section, usually a separate blog post, of my favorite games in each genre for that year. I didn’t do it last year because 2014 was actually a pretty uninteresting year for me gaming-wise. I’m not doing it this year because genres didn’t really stand out enough for me among what I played, but I still think 2015 overall has been the best year of gaming since 2011.
If you look at my GOTY posts for 2012, 2013, and 2014, in all of them I lamented that I was sort of losing interest in AAA games while indie games kept getting better. 2011 had been the last year in which you had a lot of releases that were simultaneously filled with production value, hype, and interesting content like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Witcher 2, Portal 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and the original Dark Souls. Since that year I’ve learned to completely ignore the regularly occurring franchise games to the point where they’re just background noise for me, and was was left that really grabbed me was almost all indie.
In a lot of previous posts I said I thought 2015 was going to flip things around, and it did. The indie space has remained amazing, but games with big-budgets and content that feels new also showed up again this year. What’s even better is that this trend seems to be continuing into 2016.
Mostly this probably has to do with where developers are in regards to console cycles. By 2011 the previous console cycle was really dragging on and I have the feeling developers didn’t fully know what to do. The way games ran told me the PS3 and Xbox 360 were tapped out but there were no new consoles until 2013, and it seems to have taken until this year for the libraries of those machines to hit their strides. In that meantime I feel like developers and publishers of the big games were being really safe. Some people have called 2015 “the 2007 of this console generation,” though maybe not as impactful for the industry going forward. Some of it is also because the developers of some of the top games of 2011 finally released the follow-ups to those games this year.
I’m not going to talk about all of that in this post. I’m going to leave my absolute top games (probably top three) for Wednesday. Right now I’m just going to pick out a few I think stood out as some of the most interesting and well-made highlights, in no particular order.
I’ve seen a lot of games on Steam Early Access and whatnot that might take two interesting concepts and slam them together, and one of those would be “it’s a roguelike.” It seems like a lot of those games sort of rest on the established idea of the permadeath-upgrade loop, maybe even along with randomly generated levels, combined with their own idea. Many of those are probably good games, but they don’t seem like they put in the extra effort of balance and polish. They rely on the randomly generated levels and permadeath for replay value but don’t seem to have that extra fine-tuning that really brings people back to eventually master games like Spelunky. I think Downwell has that extra spark and it’s possible people could still be hammering at it four years down the line.
Downwell is thoroughly of this roguelike era but at the same time reminds me of actual arcade games I would play in the 90’s or maybe the ones other people used to play in the 80’s. It’s the only one of these games I feel like I should be playing with an arcade stick. Maybe part of that is because it’s Japanese-made and thus part of its soul likely comes straight from that arcade culture.
Snakebird goes down as my “top game of 2015 no one played.” It really is one of the most unique, imaginative, and challenging puzzle games made in recent times. Had it come out nine years earlier it would have made for a stand-out PSP, original DS, or Xbox Live Arcade game.
Snakebird has everything its kind of game should have to succeed. Its entire core concept and rule-set is unlike anything else for starters: like the classic Snake game where you curl around and get longer by eating things, except you need to figure out how to platform your way to a goal while getting past spikes and pits. The levels themselves are hellishly difficult and ingeniously designed. I’m gonna go ahead and admit this game defeated me. I quit it. Finally, it’s all wrapped in a thick and beautiful package. The Super Mario-style world map system with bonus stages adds nonlinearity and a bit of breadth to the game while the graphics strike a pose somewhere between a Nintendo game and LocoRoco.
Every time PC vs console discussions come up and people start talking about running AAA games with perfect image quality, PC not having the kind of exclusives console players like, or consoles already getting all the good indie games, I like to point out how many great indie games are still PC-only but would probably be a great fit for consoles. Snakebird is certainly one such game that I strongly recommend just about anyone download, as it’ll run on pretty much any recent computer operating with Windows, Mac, or Linux.
Everybody talked about Her Story when it came out earlier this year but I only got around to playing it recently. Whether or not you actually think it’s a game, I still found it one of the most provocative pieces of entertainment software made in 2015.
It’s one of the few games that had me thinking about the story long after completing it. Yeah, it’s basically a collection of short videos thrown together in a mystifying package, but that in itself still proves to be a good storytelling device, and most importantly the story within is one that gripped me. I can’t say that for a lot of video game stories, ever.
I feel the most important part of Her Story is it actually felt like a detective game. Its sole interactive element — typing search queries, made me feel like I had to put thought into uncovering its storyline instead of doing exactly what a game tells me to do. On some level it feels like the game is waiting for you to ask the right questions. The format of Her Story, in some ways like a text adventure, is a really good fit for this kind of detective setup. I think Her Story is a great example of what games can be with really strong execution to boot.
SOMA is the other most-thought-provoking-game-of-2015 for me, and probably a lot of other people too. Everybody’s talking about the subjects the story touched on which are indeed very interesting, but what I really enjoyed was its approach to its world and to the player’s interaction with it.
Like I said in my earlier post about SOMA, Gone Home was kind of the same thing mechanically. SOMA has some enemies and rudimentary puzzles, but you spend most of your time in it simply walking around and investigating physics-based environments. Frictional has been doing this really well for a while — essentially making adventure games out of an immersive first person setup, like System Shock 2 but with puzzles. SOMA just happened to combine that setup with a story that grabbed people’s attention, and in my opinion was better conveyed than that of Gone Home. I really hope Gone Home developer Fullbright is paying attention to SOMA as it works on the upcoming Tacoma. The same goes for ADR1FT.
- I did all the fancy image editing for this post with an iOS app called Word Swag I just found out about. Just messing around with some things.
- I also just decided to try out GIMP. It seems like a good enough free alternative to a lot of what people probably use photoshop for. I’m just a bit intimidated by having to relearn everything I do in photoshop, which I’m only somewhat decent with because I literally took a whole class for it in high school.
- A nice selection of jam games from one developer from 2015: http://jonathanwhiting.com/writing/blog/2015/
- 80 minutes of the games of Comiket 89: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0G9gCNz2Xcw
- Steel Assault has changed: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/43113410/steel-assault/posts/1453190
- A reminder of the forward march of technology: https://youtu.be/Cl8ijPGEKO8