Johnny Niska’s “Games of 2015”

Game of the Year

These awards have never felt like my kinda thing. Don’t get me wrong, I am into the idea of a look back at the year, but the idea of making it into a competition between our favourite games always felt like undermining the entire idea. This isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about whether the heartfelt teen drama is better than the monster-slaying mercenary for hire, but rather about each of the games that captured our attention during the year and how we (or I alone, in this case) feel about the year as a whole.

The numbered list is a crutch to create tension, force conversation, and draw eyeballs. It is one we knowingly and willingly rely upon in our podcasts covering the games of 2015. You
could perhaps call me a hypocrite for being so down on it here, after how stubbornly I defended my chosen games in those podcasts. I accept that fully. Hypocrisy is a small price to pay for trying to improve, and before you say anything so is pretentiousness. So fully knowing that this intro is already way too long, let’s talk about videogames.

Pillars of Eternity

Though the trend of absurdly long and open sequels to established franchises has been ramping up for some time, 2015 is truly the year of the 80 hour adventure. Fallout is the ever obvious example, but the past year half the industry seems to have followed suit. The Witcher, Metal Gear and many others are quickly ballooning in size.

I’m sad to say that though most of these are good games in their own right, while racing for size and length they have kind of lost me along the way. In later years I have gravitated more and more towards more focused experiences. I like sitting down with a game confident that I’ll be able to push through it before something else grabs my interest, and usually these epic length titles just create ways for me to get lost in filler. With that in mind I’m surprised that I’m finding myself spending this much time with Pillars.

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Maybe it’s that Obsidian’s latest seems to know exactly what it is and what it wants more so than the others mentioned, that it has no interest in fooling the player? It’s certainly retained a lot of the problems the old Infinity Engine games had, with clunky and lengthy dungeon scenarios and voice acting that comes and goes depending on the line. But despite all that, there’s a rare sort of charm buried in these tomes and tomes of text, such that I haven’t experienced in a PC roleplaying game since… KOTOR 2. I never thought a new Infinity-style game would grab interest, so maybe the lesson here is that at least for me Obsidian is still best in their class.

Super Mario Maker, Kerbal Space Program and Cities: Skylines

Yes, I’m smushing these three together into one big pile, what of it?

Cities: Skylines
Where the tired long-windedness of the blockbuster world is my least favourite trend of the year, this trio represents some of my favourite trends. Three of the absolute best games of the year are toy boxes promoting creativity and ingenious problem-solving, demanding exactly as much time as you’re willing to give them and giving you back just as much as what you put into them. Each one of these could be classed as a hobby in their own right and I have as of this writing spent 140 hours with Cities: Skylines since its release, a number that is only bound to go up as we enter 2016.

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Flywrench

If we were to rank a list on the number of hours I’ve spent with each game, Flywrench would rank among the lowest of the year. If we measured by heightened blood pressure, pulse, and raw amount of sweat covering my body as I race through tiny corridors, flipping through colored gates and avoiding ever-spinning wheels of laser death, it would take it all.

It would be easy to discount a release like this as just another videogame release. Flywrench may be short (depending on rate of progress) and doesn’t really have a grand new idea. It’s not a revolution in how we tell stories or approach the medium. But let’s not discount the work that goes into making one of the most intoxicating, fast-paced “platforming” games I’ve ever played.

Until Dawn and Contradiction: To Spot A Liar

Unfortunate handling of mental health issues aside, Until Dawn is a well-made teen horror story that I had way more fun with than any of the actual horror films it takes its cues from. I never actually held a controller throughout my experience with Until Dawn, rather always backseat gaming behind Ben, but I have no problem recommending Until Dawn regardless.

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Where Until Dawn has some heart in how it lets you grow to slowly sympathize with its insufferable teens, Contradiction is all heart all the time. If you want a bunch of ridiculous overactors chewing scenery for hours to the backdrop of a supposedly down-to-earth murder story, this is the perfect game for you.

These games were my best “multiplayer” experiences of the year, even though they are on paper not multiplayer games. I had more fun watching and playing through them with friends than I have had actually playing a game against someone in a very long time. In addition, they both are part of one of my favourite developments in the form: these small little earnest story games showing up and sweeping the floor. Play either of them with friends, and you’ll have a good time whether you’re in control or not.

Life is Strange

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Look. It is clear at first glance that Life is Strange is far from perfect. It’s a coming of age story told through the lens of a generation that is now considerably older. And sure, having 2015 indie teens reference World of Warcraft and Twin Peaks may not be the most factually correct move, but by ignoring the material truth of today’s world the team at Dontnod has managed to focus in on an emotional truth instead, and that hits home in a much more important way.

Undertale

There’s a lot of things one could say about Undertale. First, let me just say that it is the most well-crafted game experience of the year, filled with great characters and a deliciously earnest core. While Life is Strange hit me harder all at once than any other game this year, Undertale affected me in a way that is much more long-lasting.

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With that out of the way… Let me tell you something that is going to sound ridiculous on its face. Undertale is the Dark Souls of indie JRPGs. I type this with the worst self-aware grin on my face, but I’m also entirely serious about the comparison. Let me explain.

Like Dark Souls, Undertale is confident in weaving its narrative in with its mechanics. The UI, saving, loading, and every facet of the “gameplay” (such a clunky word for this!) exists in universe and informs the narrative, like the narrative informs the systems.

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  • It tells a multi-layered story where each layer builds upon the last in a cyclical manner, each little detail somehow at the same time its own and contributing to a grander picture of what’s really going on
  • Both games play with the very language of game design to clue in and at the same time misdirect the player of important plot developments and details as to the very nature of the game’s universe.
  • Players lacking fluency in that language and the dialect that Undertale speaks is likely to face troubles playing through it.
  • It is really best to come at Undertale relatively blind and not let the chatter around the game inform your play and expectations, and just take it as it comes.
  • The Undertale fanbase is huge, and rabid, and much like the Dark Souls one has given the game a reputation that detracts from the experience of newcomers rather than adds to it, and is often best left ignored for those reasons.

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I could go on, but I think the point is made and the joke is worn out. Undertale is my favourite game of the year. I know I said this pitting of games against each others is a crutch, and yet here I am. I would have preferred not to choose, but at some point during our podcast discussions I already did, and now I find myself unable to un-choose.

Honorable mentions

There were games I enjoyed this year but did not have enough impact to feel year-defining. Here are a few

Invisible, Inc – XCOM by way of Thief, with a splice of Netrunner. Invisible, Inc is brilliant and tense at every turn, every single step a carefully thought out risk/reward calculation. Easily the best strategy game of the year, and also the best stealth game.

Assault Android Cactus – The best twin-stick shooter since Geometry Wars is unfortunately not enough to capture my attention, and I’m left wondering if I’ve changed or if I just need more friends to compete against.

Dirt Rally – The best rally game I’ve ever played, and not spending more time with it is more indicative of my own tastes this year than anything about the game. If you have a taste for racing, this is well worth a look.

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Nuclear Throne – Vlambeer has hit upon most of the key points that made Spelunky so good and translated them into a top-down arena shooter. When Nuclear Throne is at its best it would be a game of the year contender, but all too often it feels like the level generation creates uninteresting, unfun situations and you don’t have the same ability to make your own way out of them that you would have in Spelunky. If Vlambeer had the resources and commitment to push it that last stretch, this could have easily been the successor to Spelunky. Personally, I’m afraid that Vlambeer is the wrong studio for the task, preferring to focus on many smaller projects.

Axiom Verge – This is one of the best metroidvanias I’ve played outside of Metroid and Castlevania, but there’s still something about it that doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe it’s the overly complicated control scheme or the way half the weapons feel barely ever useful, or that it’s just a bit too close to Metroid… but I can’t bring myself to laud it as highly as the above.

Read Only Memories – Ultimately ROM was eclipsed by the other short story-focused releases of the year, but I still enjoyed it a lot and feel like in any other year it might have made the list.