For the first time since I’ve been doing these lists, which is probably ten years or more, over half of my choices are from independent developers. It’s an encouraging development. When you consider the movies chosen by critics on any given year, you won’t necessarily see the most popular, and you probably won’t see the most profitable, or the movies with the biggest budgets. Instead, you’ll see lists that include the best of independent cinema, arthouse releases, or at least the indie branding from the major studios. When the best of the year skew towards people who aren’t beholden to stockholders, it’s a sign that a medium is maturing creatively. Leave financial success, hollow fun, and the pursuit of pure entertainment to the corporations. Leave thoughtful design, innovation, storytelling, and creative impact to the hungry men and women with something to say.
Not that I didn’t enjoy my share of AAA releases this year! There are four in this list. Another five were in the running but didn’t make the final cut (Anno 2205, Mad Max, Total War: Attila, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Star Wars: Battlefront). Another half dozen or so I didn’t play or didn’t play enough. But on the whole, it was a year in which independent developers took the wheel and confidently steered us in exciting new directions.
After the jump, the top ten games of 2015.
First the obligatory confession so you know how much or how little stock to put in my opinion. Among the games I played, but didn’t play enough to really get a sense for whether they’d be among my favorites, are The Witcher 3; Dying Light; Mordheim: City of the Damned; the Guild Wars 2 add-on, Heart of Thorns; Undertale; Rainbow Six Siege; and Splatoon. Among the games I didn’t even get a chance to try despite being interested are Life Is Strange; Assassin’s Creed: Victory; Until Dawn; Dyscourse; The Park; Grow Home; The Escapists; Lego Dimensions; Mario Tennis; Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water; Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence; Platinum Games’ Transformers brawler; A Wolf in Autumn; the new Chibi Robo for the Nintendo DS; the Starcraft II Protoss add-on; and Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. Phew. If only there were more hours in the day…
Second, I regret that there are only ten slots in a top ten list, because more than ten games deserve a place on this year’s list. Among the runners up that didn’t quite make the cut — think of these as running from number 11 to 27 — are Chaos Reborn, Rebel Galaxy, Big Pharma, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Warhammer: Vermintide, Broforce, Sunless Sea, SOMA, Mad Max, Victor Vran, Total War: Attila, Fran Bow, Anno 2205, Nuclear Throne, Age of Decadence, Star Wars: Battlefront, and A Fistful of Gun. In that order. Apologies to all those wonderful games, but I ultimately liked the following ten better.
10. Heroes of the Storm
From my official review/apology/press conference:
[1. General Chat] n00bwrekker420: If you could fuck any one of these characters, which one would it be?
[1. General Chat] pu55ycowboy11: Li Li. He’d fuck Li Li.
[1. General Chat] tehrealslimeshady: I bet he’d fuck abathur.
[1. General Chat] BartKennedy94: I’d fuck Kerrigan!
[1. General Chat] DreemRuler: shit yeah I’d fuck kerrigan
[1. General Chat] tehrealslimeshady: nova
[1. General Chat] DreemRuler: shit yeah I wanna change my answer to nova
[1. General Chat] ThorIsAMan: sylvanas brah
[1. General Chat] pu55ycowboy11: Ha ha, he’d fuck Li Li.
I believe that question was directed at me. Which ones are Abathur and Sylvanas?
9. Prison Architect
In tycoon strategy games, you try to exert control. Over resources, over economies, over people. Whether it’s an amusement park, a factory, or an entire city, it’s all about controlling the flow of people, goods, traffic. The first of several ingenious things Prison Architect does is be about the design, construction, and management of a prison. At a prison, the concept of control couldn’t be more explicit.
From the review:
Some of the best games are games I never knew I wanted until I played them. And then I thought, “Of course! This is a game I should have been playing all along, but I just didn’t know it.” That’s pretty much what happens within the first hour of booting up Prison Architect. You’re all, like, oh yeah, a game about running a prison is a fantastic idea. It’s a feeling that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t go away.
8. Hand of Fate
A thrilling cocktail of three parts roguelike, one part choose-your-own-adventure, one part RPG, one part deck builder, one part diluted action brawler, and a splash of collectible card game. Shuffle and serve.
From the review:
Hand of Fate doesn’t just get cards as the tactile things you flip up on a table, or shuffle into a deck, or riffle smartly with your fingertips. And it doesn’t just get cards as the perfect format for an evocative title above a piece of distinct artwork (the artwork in Hand of Fate is a hybrid of the medieval woodcuttings you might find in a volume of Blake poetry and the illustrations in a collection of ghastly children’s faerie tales). It gets cards as things you collect.
7. Metal Gear Solid V
This year’s best Call of Duty game. In a year with some great sidekicks — hi, Fallout 4! — these were the best. Quiet is my favorite character this year for how she’s provocative, subversive, absurd, and oddly dignified. That she ruffles the indignant feathers of people advocating for cheesecake-free videogaming is just a plus.
From the review:
I have no idea how dyed-in-the-wool Metal Gear fans will react, specifically to one of the final reveals, but as a sometime Metal Gear player, this is easily as good as the series has ever been (here’s my one-star review of Metal Gear Solid 4 if you want to get a sense for what my deal is). Kojima and his team deserve a lot of credit for at last balancing all the Metal Gear nonsense with actual gameplay. This is the Metal Gear game us non-Metal Gear fans have waited almost thirty years to play.
6. Invisible Inc
Talking about a movie he admired more than he liked, a friend of mine once said, “It should be taught in film school.” That’s how I feel about Invisible Inc. It should be taught in game design school. Plus I really like it.
It would teach game design students that more frequent minor decisions might feel more realistic, but fewer important decisions will always feel more meaningful. It will teach game design students, more directly than any game since the original X-com, how to tightly weave the interplay between the tactical and strategic levels. It will teach game design students to move everything at a snappier pace than almost every other game of its type. And it will each game design students that stealth doesn’t have to be “oh shit, now I have to reload” or “hmm, is it safe to go over there?” (often followed by “oh shit, now I have to reload”). A good stealth game has to anticipate that sometimes you will be seen, at which point it shouldn’t just wag its finger at you for not guessing better whether the guard was going to turn around and see you. In Invisible Inc, stealth is a tool, not an end in itself. Just as a gun in a shooter is a tool, not an end in itself. A shooter doesn’t force you to reload a saved game when you run out of bullets. Invisible Inc will also teach game design students a sleek and sexy cyber aesthetic.
Read the review in the text I just wrote up there. Five stars!
5. Dirt Rally
Dirt Rally, like actual rally racing, is an intricate pas de deux between control and speed. It is expertly situated in a racing game shell built to pull you into playing and then playing some more. It is also the best graphics I’ve seen this year. To be fair, the Dirt Rally graphics only has to do one thing, and it’s not necessarily that fancy a thing. It’s just rally racing. But its graphics engine does it better than any other 2015 game does what it does.
Read the review when I write it in a week or so.
4. Vietnam ’65
Don’t mistake this for a hardcore nerdyman wargame. Sure, it’s that, too. It has hexes, after all. But what kind of hardcore nerdyman wargame plays equally well on the iPad and PC? Vietnam ’65 expresses complex aspects of the war in Vietnam without being complex. One of the finest strategy games I’ve played in a long time and utterly unique.
From the co-review I wrote with hardcore nerdyman wargamer Bruce Geryk:
Vietnam ’65 is doing something I haven’t seen in a videogame. It’s modeling the pacification that was a cornerstone of US policy in Vietnam. As an eager student of game design, I love when games model traditionally non-gamey subjects in new ways. I’ve played Vietnam as a first-person shooter, as a wargame, and even as a shmup. But I’ve never played it as an operational level study of the doctrine of pacification.
3. Renowned Explorers
Pick your team from a colorful rogue’s gallery of explorers for an equally colorful globetrotting adventure, all drawn with actual 2D art instead of the usual MacGyvered 8- or 16-bit visuals. A gorgeous game with ridiculously entertaining but clever tactical combat that’s not just combat. Every expedition is a delight. I could play this joyous game over and over again. Which I did. And will continue to do.
From the review:
Those monkeys with their insults, those pirates with their swords and flintlocks, those nuns in the abbey with their friendly faith-based attacks. It all makes sense even when it kind of doesn’t make sense. Why do mummies want to hug you? Why is one of the most effective taunts to make fun of someone’s underwear? How is it that giving a wolf raspberries will drive it away with its tail between its legs? Don’t ask. Just enjoy.
2. Arkham Knight
This year had some really good open worlds: Fallout 4, Mad Max, Just Cause 3, Xenoblade Chronicles X. But the best of them was Arkham Knight for its variety, evocative gloom, and unmistakable personality, all thanks to superlative writing and gameplay that doesn’t rely on the usual gunplay. The Batmobile was a worthy addition to Batman’s arsenal, providing sometimes Need for Speed-worthy racing, outrageous shooting, and even puzzles. Arkham Knight is the remarkable and triumphant realization of what Rocksteady began in the 2009 release of Arkham Asylum.
From the review:
Arkham Knight’s take on the hero/villain relationship is unique. You can hail it as clever as Fight Club or dismiss it as stupid as midichlorians — you’re at least a little right on either count — but you cannot deny that it’s a compelling variation on the theme, and it works wonders to sustain the story with unique dialogue and narrative opportunities.
As for the rest of the yarn in Arkham Knight, it’s the usual comic book tropes, where no one who’s dead is gone, if even dead. So when the first image in the game is Joker’s body being cremated to a wonderfully appropriate Sinatra ditty, you might guess the first word isn’t also the final word. But it’s definitely the word, no-nonsense, no fooling, you’ve seen what you’ve seen, so now what? Count it among the finer reveals and follow-throughs you’ll see in a videogame.
1. Massive Chalice
My friend’s son is a six-year-old. An inquisitive-six year-old. He looks at the world and wants to know things. What’s this? What’s that? Why is this? Why is that? I’m about to play a boardgame with his mother and some of my other friends. After he’s asked the usual what’s this and what’s that, he poses this broad question that most people would have to ponder for a bit, assuming they didn’t shrug it off because it was asked by a six-year-old. Why are we playing these games?
To my surprise, I don’t have to ponder it. Maybe it’s because it is being asked by a six-year-old (I find it’s best not to overthink things too much when talking to children). An answer immediately appears in my mouth, falling from my brain as surely as a Snickers dropping to the bottom of a vending machine.
“Because I like telling stories with my friends.”
Boom. Nailed it. I make a mental note to remember that answer because aren’t I clever? You can only embrace child-like sincerity for so long before adult cruft like self-importance and pride muscle in. But it’s what came to me, and I hadn’t even planned that answer. Now I’ll be ready if I’m ever asked that in a job interview.
Not that I don’t care about mechanics. I do. Deeply. They are the framework for the storytelling, just like a painting needs a canvas or a cathedral needs a foundation. But my favorite thing about games is the stories they tell, the stories we collaboratively create, whether at a table with friends or in front of a PC with a single-player game.
Massive Chalice is my favorite game this year because it tells a story I needed to hear. This year, having been diagnosed with cancer, my own mortality slithered into my day-to-day life. It wrapped itself around every passing hour. I needed to hear a story about transcending death. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t have any of those stories in my life. Which is fine when you’re young and you don’t have any skin in the game; cold existentialism and harsh science are simple — even obligatory? — up to a point. But then someone you know dies, or you turn fifty, or you live through a potentially fatal car wreck, or you’re on a plane that has to make an emergency landing, or that lump in your throat is stage 4 cancer that has spread to your lymph nodes. Suddenly it’s not so satisfying to feel everything in heaven and earth is dreamt of in our philosophy and God isn’t just dead, but he was never even alive and yadda yadda yadda Camus, cigarettes, Richard Dawkins.
Massive Chalice tells stories about how death isn’t the final word. On the contrary, death is a necessary part of the game, because Massive Chalice wants to be about how generations will inform later generations, which in turn will inform the generations yet to come, all of whom are indebted to the generations before them. It is life and mortality walking hand in hand, marveling at the passing centuries.
Not that Massive Chalice is heavy or preachy or even necessarily aware of what it’s doing for me. If I were to tell all this to designer Brad Muir, he might give me a funny look because I doubt he set out to reassure some dude dealing with cancer. You might have to dig deeper than authorial intent to really appreciate what I’m talking about, to see it clearly, to understand what I got from it. Here is a game that rewards curiosity about its mechanics, about asking what is this and what is that and why is this and why is that. And when you examine Massive Chalice closely — something that’s easy to do because it’s relatively simple, thoroughly above board, and entirely turn-based — you will find stories like Malin Grimandi’s ill-fated attempt to rescue the besieged Flinks in Abbott Marsh. You will meet characters like the Gaffney girls across many many years. You will discover how even though Miyami Yaba died childless at 71, she affected the lives of so many who lived long after she had died. In all this, death plays an important part, usually for how it’s not the final word. I mean, yeah, I could read a novel with a drawn-out multi-generational family epic and get roughly the same idea. But who wants to read Tolstoy, or about a dude in front of a firing squad remembering that time his dad showed him ice, or some tortured Faulkner thing when you could be playing a strategy game as good as Massive Chalice?
For comparison’s sake, the top ten games of 2014.