As I find myself helpless against the call of The Witness it’s become increasingly clear that not only is 2015 over, but 2016 is already in full swing. My original goal was to spend a mostly-quiet January catching up on the handful of big games I wanted to play. The problem — and I knew this was going to be a problem going into it — was that a lot of these games were too long to realistically play in that timeframe.
It was silly to think I could play Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3 in just a few weeks, and even sillier to think I could squeeze in Mario Maker, Dying Light, Undertale, AND finish up Telltale’s Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands. I did manage to play SOMA and Her Story, two games I’m thrilled to have finished before writing this. I also played a good 40 hours of Fallout 4, more than enough to justify its presence in this list.
As for my shame pile, I have to say it’s pretty cool that I played so much this year and still have GOTY-tier titles that have overflowed into 2016. The Witcher 2 was fun, but overrated, so I’m super curious to see how this far more ambitious third game treats me, especially after several rounds of patches and improvements. I’m excited to see if Mario Maker grabs me — I see its elegance but I don’t have the same passion for 2D Mario games that people who put it on the top of their lists have. I’m curious to see how Telltale’s two series wrap up, and I’m interested to figure out what makes Undertale so beloved. 2016 is already threatening to sidetrack my backlog efforts but 2015 was so good that I doubt I’ll be swayed for long.
Anyway, credit to those games aside, the real winners are the ten games I truly loved in 2015:
10) Fallout 4 – I’ve put exponentially less time into Bethesda RPGs with each entry. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours I put into Morrowind, but that number shrank to 120 with Oblivion, 90 with Fallout 3, and finally 20 or so with Skyrim. Fallout 4 broke the curse — not necessarily because it’s a better game than Skyrim — it’s just more Fallout, and it’s the thing Bethesda has been doing for over a decade now. But I find myself drawn to this new world despite the weird allegiances and strained attempt to tell a “main story”. I go off the beaten path and I find the thing Bethesda has always done so well — a story to discover, a moment lost in time, or an unexpected comment from a robot that thinks he’s a hardboiled detective.
9) Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – Syndicate is my favorite Assassin’s Creed game since AC2 & Brotherhood made the series something special. Annualized to hell, Assassin’s Creed blew it with AC3’s ending and has been scrambling to recover ever since. Sure, AC4 was a cool departure, but when AC:Unity brought the series back to its roots of historical parkour, it was clear Ubisoft was struggling to find where to go next. And now, only a year later, Syndicate feels like a step back onto solid ground. Jacob and Evie are the best characters since Ezio, the present day plot seems to be building back up to something worthwhile again, and they finally got AC to play like a decent stealth game. It’s time to take a break, and I’m glad that Ubi seems to be taking a year off, but Syndicate was a great note to pause on.
8) Her Story – Blame Serial, Making a Murderer, and the gaming press hype machine, but I was a bit intimidated by Her Story. I’d heard anecdotes of its open-ended narrative where you stop playing when you’re satisfied. I’d heard of people with notepads trying to piece everything together and conflicting theories raging on through message boards to this day. So it was a little weird when I finished the game in two hours, satisfied that I’d cracked the mystery. Her Story’s brilliant police database format allows you to be a video game detective, and offers up a great excuse for some classy FMV acting, but it also earns its place as an inviting first salvo into potential genre I’d love to see more of.
7) Until Dawn – Until Dawn is a way classier game than it has any right to be. Yes, it’s about a bunch of idiot teenagers trying to get drunk and hook up in a cabin in the woods, but that’s only the start. Everything from the characterization, to the clever framing devices, and the explanation for all the spooks and scares is more carefully crafted than most horror films. It’s playable, choice-driven, replayable, ambitious, and still manages to outdo the film genre it’s inspired by in a lot of ways. One of 2015’s great surprises.
6) Life is Strange – Life is Strange is a strong case for games about things besides shooting people. I want to play more games about life choices, relationships, three-dimensional female leads, and sitting on park benches. It’s almost a shame that the end-of-the-world time-travel stuff keeps Life is Strange from truly being about normal day-to-day life. That said, the sci-fi stuff helped push the narrative down some paths I never could have imagined. There were few things more exciting in 2015 than the lead-up to a new Life is Strange episode, mainly because the writers outdid themselves with every cliffhanger.
5) Grow Home – Ubisoft Reflections has now made two of my favorite and most indescribable games. First they made Driver: San Francisco, a story-driven racing game about a comatose ghost man that possesses the city’s drivers. And now they have Grow Home, a game about jumping and climbing to higher heights, exploring a world, searching for collectibles, and building up the environment yourself by riding a giant growing flower. It looks like an experiment in many ways, from the sparse graphics to the weird physics-based animations, but the sum result is a magical experience that feels like a nostalgia trip and a revival of 3D platformers all at once.
4) Destiny: The Taken King – Often Destiny is a game about sinking hundreds of hours into a game, wishing it was something better, and knowing that it could be. Bungie still has a lot of growing to do before they can make the game people imagine, but The Taken King showed they are capable of getting there. Simply put, for a few months Destiny was incredible — a nightly ritual among friends who all loved it and felt no shame about the time they sunk into it. The sheen has worn off as the content has run dry and Bungie has gone quiet, and Destiny once again feels more like a chore than a joy, but for a little while there, my hobby wasn’t playing video games, it was playing Destiny.
3) SOMA – The story that drives Frictional Games’ successor to Amnesia is one of the smartest and thought-provoking sci-fi tales I’ve ever experienced in a game. The performances are perfect, and the twists are stomach-churning. The gameplay is the same sort of horror-corridor exploration that worked in Amnesia, but the world and tale at the heart of it is on an entirely different level. Frictional’s name is no joke, they make games that bite back, and SOMA is often so scary that it’s almost unpleasant to play, yet I couldn’t stop because I needed to know what would happen next.
2) Bloodborne – This year, From Software proved that they could redefine the Souls games. Bloodborne fundamentally changed the language of combat away from Dark Souls slow, defense-heavy combat, to something much more aggressive and fast. It was both a challenge to die-hard fans of Dark Souls and an invitation for an entirely new audience. Bloodborne is every bit as uncompromising and brutal as Dark Souls, but it’s also the most appealing and well-realized this series has been. No one makes games like this, and this is one of From Software’s best.
1) Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – For all the insanity that Kojima crams into the Metal Gear games, I don’t think anyone expected him to make a game like The Phantom Pain. At the heart of Kojima’s swan song is the best stealth action gameplay ever, not just for MGS, but for the genre as a whole. The sheer breadth of tools and options the game gives the player is staggering, and infiltrating a base never gets old because of that. It’s the first Metal Gear game that you can recommend to people who have no interest in the story. That’s enough to put MGSV on this list, but what cements it at the top is the sheer ambition on display. MGSV offers up over 50 hours of gameplay, dozens of guns and tools, companions to take on missions, a robust base-building system, a weird online invasion mechanic, crazy twists and turns, an incredible soundtrack, and Nintendo-tier playability and polish.
Perhaps even more incredible is where that ambition falls short. Take the character Quiet, for instance. She’s both a problematic excuse for titillation and one of the most compassionate and interesting heroes in the story. Then there’s the overall plot, which goes to some insane and dark places, nearly incapable of holding back before ending abruptly thanks to supposed content cuts. That a game as massive as MGSV could potentially have cut content is already insane — that it feels like a small tragedy is even stranger.