2015 had a significant share of bad games, so the following works, particularly the top two, deserve much credit for carrying the torch of superior design and execution. You will also notice that a few of these selections are updated editions, which shouldn’t be excluded if they substantially improve on good work. (For more reading, check out the top 10 best games of 2014 here.)
Off-Peak doesn’t amount to “environmental storytelling” hype and displays a conflicted perspective about creation that should inspire a rejection of Davey Wreden’s tabloid-like excrement in The Beginner’s Guide. Developer Cosmo D avoids both sentimentality and trendy Marxism by showing how people take pride in their work despite their economic exploitation. With subtlety that still carries a punch, Cosmo D utilizes artificiality to communicate his more critical observations. Seemingly like many video-game sights, the animation of the dancing man in the suit cuts corners to make a world quasi-alive, but its purpose is to express, entertainingly, the preposterous relationship between art and commerce. With this scene and more, Cosmo D translates his personal reaction to art under capitalism into a simple and powerful technical achievement.
(See full review of Off-Peak in issue 58 of Unwinnable.)
The relentless kinetic art of Downwell has no peer in 2015. Ojiro Fumoto creates tension between the goals of survival and high combos with one simple rule: as you plunge into the well, you can’t stomp red enemies without taking damage. When trying combos, at first you might find that the randomly generated levels place more importance on luck, but the deeper you drop, the more you realize this isn’t true, as Fumoto includes destructible items that keep you bouncing, a wall jump, and methodically placed time suspensions. Your choices in Downwell — regarding weapons, health, ammo, and various types of upgrades and styles — must reconcile different advantages in timing and endurance. The final group of levels brilliantly marries surviving to the combo before you face one of the best designed bosses in the 21st century.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D
The 3D doesn’t matter, but this redone version of the second Nintendo 64 Zelda game does show that the polygons of some classics could stand to be updated. More importantly, Majora’s Mask reflects a recognizable world-weariness that makes hope all the more necessary — and localized, as implied by the protagonist’s transformations into different community heroes. Although certain things like the mini-games and fairy companion are uninspired and tedious, the game’s three-day cycle speaks to the human conditions of anxiety and perseverance, allowing you to uncover the habits of the townspeople and manipulate the world in ways that surpass the ho-hum possibilities in the limited Chrono Trigger.
(See full review of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D here.)
4. Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition
The definitive edition of Three Fourths Home. Zach Sanford’s family drama requires the mother-and-daughter epilogue, which nails the conflict between baby-boomer and millennial mindsets while detailing the almost universal anxiety of making it in U.S. society.
(See full review of Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition here.)
5. Crime Is Sexy
Crime Is Sexy adopts David Hasselholf’s “True Survivor” as its score to lampoon gung-ho consumerism that celebrates getting ripped off by the gatekeepers of digital games. Developer Jallooligans mocks signing agreements, sharing personal information, and creating profiles with Steam et al. as an absurd commitment to playing games. The biggest laughs, however, come when you scroll through 1,000 games, including Existential Futility Statement, Middle-Class Inferiority Crisis, Minority Inadequacy World, and, in reference to one of the worst games of 2014, Fantasy Life: The RPG. Such a collection paints a future where we celebrate our disconnection from hope and the idea of owning nothing, making Crime Is Sexy the most provocative 2015 statement on game politics (i.e., more valuable than Undertale’s fatuous meta-morality).
(See full review of Crime Is Sexy here.)
6. Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut
While Bethesda had a tough time figuring out which video-game trend it wanted to copy the most in Fallout 4, the director’s cut of Wasteland 2 mixed good-guy camaraderie with pulpy humor for a three-dimensional commentary on the intentions of armed forces looking to keep order. The combat, based on taking cover for bonuses, is electric, but even better is the suspenseful lead-up to combat, when you manipulate the camera to look out for ambushes. Most importantly, Wasteland 2 doesn’t trivialize moral/political conflicts with abstractions like reputation points or tutorial-like announcements about consequences.
(See full review of Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut here.)
7. Conversations We Have in My Head
Whether Conversations We Have in My Head is autobiographical is immaterial. Developer Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai’s imaginary convo has more believable rhythm and pathos than stilted Telltale and BioWare dialogue, which serve a player-choice ideology rather than a story. Conversations We Have in My Head tackles queer themes in down-to-earth terms and wittily conveys how humans deal with change and attempt to relate to each other, with each replay strengthening one’s understanding of the two characters.
(See full review of Conversations We Have in My Head here.)
8. Westerado: Double Barreled
Along with Shutshimi, Downwell, and Gaurodan, here’s more evidence that the most interesting shooters as of late have been non-3D. When it comes to pacing, this extended version of Westerado makes most open-world games look amateurish. Although the story fails in its lazy final attempt to be moral, the draw-cock-fire-reload system and murder mystery are as engaging as the lack of inventory junk is refreshing.
Cibele’s non-vindictive message on romantic confusion trumps the cliched she-villains in Her Story. Some argue Nina Freeman’s game could have been an ego trip, as she plays herself both in voice-overs and on video. Yet Freeman possesses an attractive, humble warmth on camera when you’re not searching through computer files or playing an online RPG as her titular counterpart. Even though clicking enemies to advance the story can be dull, the depicted online relationship carries a believable self-awareness about the blurring between virtual and actual worlds. Blake, the immature boyfriend, sums up a theme that is contemporary in one way but timeless in another: “I don’t know about real life.”
10. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
You have to forgive The Witcher 3’s miserably uninspired combat and all of the banalities within its overlarge world (bombing monster nests should be prescribed to people with insomnia). But as critic Ian Williams suggested in Paste, the game’s immense dedication to the human condition in what would normally be considered superfluous side quests is nearly unparalleled. Only Planescape: Torment does as well in this regard, but the visuals of The Witcher 3 go further to capture the vulnerabilities and inner strength in human faces against the backdrop of a precarious wilderness.
A Parting Note on Rocket League
It is more exciting than sports games that try and pretty much always fail to be realistic. I’d even say that the accessibility and subtleties of the contests in Rocket League remind me of Street Fighter II. Having said that, I wouldn’t feel right praising it too much because I’ve yet to play, from the same developer (Psyonix), Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. While the title itself may not suggest greatness, it appears to be the first game to combine racing and soccer. The praise surrounding Rocket League hasn’t touched on this very much, so I would like to investigate before evaluating Rocket League’s significance.