Thoughts on Games of 2015

1. GOTY - Rocket League - I think that this game's success took pretty much everyone by surprise, as the basic premise of "cars playing soccer" sounds like little more than a fun novelty experiment: something you'd play for an hour or so and then hang up. That the game has had such staying power for me this year is a testament to its brilliant design, its pick-up-and-play nature, and its accessibility to a wide variety of people. I played this game on a couch with no less than ten different people over the course of this year, including folks like my mom and dad who rarely if ever play any games. Over the summer I played it for almost an hour or two a day on many days with my son, who also played the game with me online several times and who also played the game with his cousins online from time to time. So while Rocket League is my GOTY for many of the "traditional" reasons that I give a game that annual designation (great looking graphics, spot-on mechanics, depth of play, lasting impression, etc.), this one also scores a lot of points for its ability to replicate a lot of what I liked about the public enthusiasm for the best arcade games from bygone eras.

2. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture - Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is a different game from its predecessor, the excellent Dear Esther, in many ways, though at its heart it is still a slow walk through beautiful landscapes with minimal player input. That said, there is a fair bit more to interact with in Rapture than there was in Dear Esther, and there's a more involved and straightforward story that is uncovered along the way. The game is split up into "chapters" that each focus on the story of an individual character, and they are all woven together very nicely by the end. Without giving too much away, I can say that I felt compelled to finish the game in two sittings. If Dear Esther made me alternately awestruck and overcome, Everyone's Gone to the Rapture made me feel alternately engrossed and depressed. Those emotions fit better for this longer game (Rapture is closer to 5-6 hours compared to Dear Esther's 1.5-2 hours), but what both games have in common is creating an intense sense of solitude and corresponding despair, mitigated with moments of sheer beauty and wonder. I love that the medium has reached a place where these kinds of experience are possible, profitable, and on the rise - I strongly recommend the game to anyone looking for something different from standard genre titles.

3. Destiny: The Taken King - As was the case in 2014, Destiny is probably the game that I sunk more hours into than any other this past year. The same things that drew me to the game originally are all still here, but The Taken King expansion added a much clearer and more considered layer of polish to the Destiny story, made leveling and upgrading a lot more compelling than it was in its first year, and introduced enough new frameworks for missions and new mechanics for gameplay so as to genuinely make the game feel fresh almost every time I booted it up. There was no lack of things to do in The Taken King and no shortage of modes that seemed accessible and worth spending time on, which is key for a game in this genre. So while I am happy to have finally moved on from hours of Destiny-playing for the time being, I can't wait to see what happens with the game in 2016.

4. Undertale - This unassuming retro-inspired RPG has very quickly become quite the critical darling, and for good reasons. Its sharp and witty writing, its refreshing implementation and merger of uncommon gameplay ideas, and its use of careful world building to create strong attachment and investment in characters and consequences...these are all hallmarks of an RPG that earns it place amongst the best in the genre. The game offers a lot of memorable scenes, it makes you feel like your choices matter throughout, and while the goal of a game is to ostensibly escape a place, it does an excellent job making you feel conflicted about almost everything you do along the way. This game also hit the sweet spot for me in terms of time investment (about 10 hours), which makes it short for an RPG but perfect for what this one seeks to accomplish. To say much more about the game is to give away more than I'd want for someone to know when approaching the game fresh, but suffice to say if you have ever enjoyed the unusual setting of something like Earthbound or some of the humor in classic LucasArts point-n-click games, you should give this one a look.

5. Gunman Clive 2 - I was surprised this one didn't end up on more GOTY lists around the web, but it may be a victim to its release last January, far away from when people typically consider these lists. The first Gunman Clive game very much provided a Mega Man-type experience set in the old west, but this one upped the ante on that idea in pretty much every way and, in the process, became one the most interesting run-n-gun platformers of the past decade or so. First, and most importantly, the game offers a perfect marriage of control and level design. There are parts that seem tough, but nothing ever seems unfair. There are Space Harrier-reminiscent stages that offer 3D variations on the standard 2D gameplay, there are stages that offer memorable boss showdowns, and there are stages that are offer puzzle-game like challenges to advance. There are stages where you ride dinosaurs and pandas. This is all wrapped up in an even better looking sepia-toned aesthetic than was offered in the first game, and the introduction of more absurdity and more sci-fi elements just adds to the game's personality and playability. Ultimately, this sequel makes a good argument that Gunman Clive is easily the best Nintendo-developed IP of at least the past decade, if not longer.

Honorable Mention - The Order: 1886 - This was a solid game in the fine tradition of stuff like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, but set in a steampunk late 19th Century London against a Jack the Ripper, Arthurian, and Lycan mythos. Oh, and Nikola Tesla is basically Q to your 007, so that's cool. I don't get the disdain that this game has engendered. It was a well-paced game with interesting characters, a memorable world, solid writing reminiscent of its pulpy influences, and top-notch voice acting and sound. It is also the best looking console game I've played. The combat is fast, fun, and has a lot of various weapons that are each unique. Yes, it is only 6-8 hours long. In my book, that's a sweet spot for a game like this and it is perfect for a weekend romp.

There are lots of games I didn't get to play, but among the ones that I had hoped to spend more time with before finishing this list are: Until Dawn, Metal Gear Solid V, Life is Strange, Halo 5, and Soma. I wouldn't be shocked to find any of them replacing one of these up here, but alas, there's never enough time!