Gamasutra's Best of 2015: Kris Graft's Top 5 Games
Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft kicks off our year-end top games lists for 2015.
Looking back at the games I played most in 2015, I found myself leaning away from PC and mobile games, and a little more towards the console.
I wonder if other people found themselves doing something similar: 2014 was a transitional year for consoles as companies wrapped up games between the two generations. Meanwhile, my PC has drifted away spec-wise, indies and big-budget games alike now come in good supply on consoles, and the plug-and-play experience of consoles became particularly attractive.
That said, the games that made my top 5 list for 2015 are available across various platforms. These are simply games that left a lasting impression on me, whether through narrative, mechanics, theme, technical prowess, or a mixture of everything. I say this every year, but it was incredibly difficult choosing just five—there are some that I had to leave out, but I guess that’s the fun part about lists!
Stay tuned for a parade of top 5s (presented in alphabetical order--no rankings here) from a variety of Gamasutra staff and contributors throughout the week. This year, we’ll be announcing an overall top 10, so keep an eye out for that next week.
Thanks to everyone for reading, and for making great games!
The Beginner’s Guide by Davey Wreden/Everything Unlimited Ltd.
The Beginner’s Guide takes the idea of artistic creation, slices it up into all of its subsets, sculpts them into a cohesive narrative using some of the most basic mechanical tropes found in video games, and boils it all down to a 90-minute experience that is beautifully excruciating.
By the end of The Beginner’s Guide, you can’t help but reflect on what it all means—on the surface, it's “about” game development, but the underlying theme is what it means to be a creator, and what it means to hand that creation over to other people. There is a narrative thread here involving the tensions between creation, commercialism, and consumption. In addressing those themes, The Beginner’s Guide raises many questions, but there are, thankfully, no final answers.
The Beginner’s Guide presents creativity and the issues therein as an open question. Seeing game developers and other creators wrestle with the themes in this piece of existential art was just an added bonus to an already memorable experience.
Downwell by Ojiro “moppin” Fumoto
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Downwell is the tightest piece of design on this list. It’s a small game, it’s focused, procedurally generated, and highly mechanical. It involves jumping down a well, fighting not only against enemies (you know…bats…blobs…frogs…), but interestingly, the force of gravity itself. Downwell gives players a few tools to steer that force—a left button, a right button, some boots that shoot bullets—but the constant, invisible pull toward the center of the Earth always wins. It’s the player’s job to manage that pull without dying, and that adds a sense of urgency that few platformers can claim.
The foundation of Downwell—the verticality of the levels, the pull of gravity, and the shooty boots—are supplemented by other impressively-considered systems that feed into an already excellent game: Shops make you think hard about where you ought to spend your hard-earned gems, and enemy behaviors cause you completely change your strategy at a split-second’s notice, for example.
We’re going to be hearing more about Downwell in 2016, and rightfully so, as it heads to other platforms. The game is an achievement in design, and considering this is the first commercial release for Ojiro “moppin” Fumoto, we may have more to be excited about in the future.
Dying Light by Techland
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Among the big, sprawling open-world games of 2015, Dying Light wasn’t exactly the headliner. Aside from it being a new property, it also had the played-out zombie apocalypse theme that might’ve put it on some peoples’ “I’ll wait for the sale” lists.
But this is a game that early this year consumed all of my game time. The primary reason was that it just feels good to play. To clarify, Dying Light nails the verbs of physical action that occur within its particular 3D space. Run, jump, hit, grab, etc. are verbs that have a very difficult time functioning in first-person games, but Dying Light made everything feel natural (at least for people familiar with gamepads). What Techland did with Dying Light is create a world that is far more pleasing to navigate and interact with than probably any open-world out there. That’s a testament not only to character movement, but also some outstanding level design that facilitates such intuitive action within the game. This is a traversal system that ought to be studied.
Add in a day-night system that encourages players to engage in risk-reward scenarios, enjoyable side quests that give the world some personality, great cooperative multiplayer, and you have a game that can stand on its own among the more recognizable open-world mainstays.
The developer support here is also notable. Techland made sure to treat Dying Light as an ongoing service, with special events (such as super-strength on April Fool’s Day), free DLC (like this one making fun of a Destiny-Red Bull partnership), a graphics patch for the PlayStation 4 version of the game, or big paid additions. It’s true that the story and crafting systems are a bit half-baked, but the lesser aspects of Dying Light are overshadowed by strong mechanics that make the city of Harran a place you want to keep returning to, despite the rather horrible aspects that come with a zombie apocalypse.
Fallout 4 by Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Fallout 4 was the only game that I played this year that felt like I actually had the opportunity to role-play. I started out as what the game wanted me to be—a man whose wife was murdered and who was on a quest to find his missing son.
When that wore thin (yeah…the drive to find your own flesh and blood fades quickly, admittedly), I turned off quest markers, and became the wanderer that game’s launch campaign advertised.
Now, I’ve decided to be a Power Armor scavenger / mechanic based in the northwest, just outside of Sanctuary. I dabble in architecture. My son is still missing, but I'm doing what I can. I'm probably being a bad dad.
It’s interesting—I talk to people about Fallout 4, and they have well-argued complaints about the game: it’s lacking in the more difficult moral choices; the crafting system is obtuse and convoluted; the interface is clunky; it’s pretty much the same as Fallout 3, but in Boston. I agree with some of the complaints I hear.
Yet, I’m still playing it, and so are the people who offer up those complaints. There’s something about what Fallout 4 does have that heavily distracts from what the game doesn’t have. What Fallout 4 has done is hand a bit more agency over to the player: they have more ability to make the world of Fallout their own. That may clash with the people looking for a more polished, hand-crafted experience, but for many people, Fallout 4 is exactly what they were looking for in an RPG.
Soma by Frictional Games
Soma was marketed as a horror game—and yes, there are moments when you’re horrified—but progressing through the game, you realize that this is less of a conduit of horror and more of a vehicle to present and express authored ideas about existence, consciousness, and what it means to be a sentient human being. Soma plays with those concepts (each of which, in their own ways, can be innately horrifying), and presents them in a unique design de-emphasizes black-and-white mechanics, and focuses more on presenting scenarios that allow players to project their own assumptions and ideas into the game.
That player projection doesn’t just feed into the broad narrative themes. The levels and monster behaviors are conducive to mental modelling that has players filling in the blanks that Frictional Games leaves quite purposefully. Moving through the levels, the game continually prods at one’s curiosity, leading them to initiate events that thrill, scare, or enlighten the player.
Soma is a full-blown existential crisis wrapped up in a sci-fi horror package that does more than just scare the player, but also makes them think about life. It’s a game that’s stuck with me for the past few months.
What were your top games of the year?