2015 was a hell of a year. For me, for the game industry, for the world. It was the year that Konami exploded. It was the year we found out that the Final Fantasy VII remake is, like, a real thing. No, like really. Like they've coded parts of it.
For me, it was the year I finished grad school, got pushed out of the nest in a very real way, fell in and out of love a couple times, formed my own company, and watched my own project, Peter Panic, kind of spiral out of control in a really, really cool and wonderful way. It's the year I met a lot of industry people who are now meaningful friends.
It also, as it turns out, is the year in which i played, like, maybe eight games. That's hyperbole, but I was selective about which games I played through to completion, although I started and abandoned a ton. Turns out, it's pretty hard to make a game by yourself and play a bunch of games at the same time. But! Here are my thoughts on the best of what I played!
(I chose to stop commenting at some point because I didn't feel like I had anything meaningful to add other than the choice.)
I am shocked to see SOMA at the top of my list. Not because I don't think it's a brilliant game - it is - but because it just doesn't feel like a top-spot game. Looking at my favorite games of the last few years - Shadow of Mordor, The Last of Us, an array of Mass Effects - it seems like 2015 is the year that tiny, meticulously crafted experiences have finally taken over as the type of experience I hold most dear. As you'll figure out later on in this list - and despite my third and fourth favorite games of the year - this is definitely the year that I realized that an open world is no longer inherently appealing. It's the character, history, and feel of a world - not the size - that I appreciate most.
SOMA takes place in a small world, and nearly each of the games components can be derived from a big game of the last decade. The setting from Bioshock, the combat from Amnesia, the "twist" from every game or movie ever made - it's all there. But Frictional Games employs these pieces effectively and tells a story that is far more moving and thought-provoking than it has any right to be.
Spoilers: The "is machine a man" question has been brought up in countless forms, the first I can remember being the "Measure of a Man" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (This is not the first, but it was my first.) Nothing, though, has more effectively forced me to think about what was actually happening in SOMA, in the process of copying someone's consciousness into a machine, than the last handful of minutes spent underwater. You hook yourself up to a machine, you transfer your consciousness, you excitedly wait to see if the transfer was successful - and it was. And nothing happened. And you sit there and you watch the "other" copy of your consciousness shoot off into space, and you realize the horrible implication of the opening, of murdering those creatures earlier, of murdering a copy of yourself just minutes before. It's powerful in a way that this kind of strict genre fiction often fails to be.
Undertale. What the fuck. It seems like people have been telling me that I should play Undertale for years. Although I'm normally not immediately opposed to popular media, the vigor with which people espoused their love for Undertale was so aggressive that I was steadfast in my resolve not to touch it. But on December 31st, as the new year loomed and I was hella sick, I decided to play through all of Undertale and, eight hours later, I'd experienced - twice - one of the most surprising, odd, and heartfelt games of 2015. And here's the thing about a game being heartfelt - it's dumb. Normally. Maybe a better word for what Undertale is is earnest.
Earnestness can go terribly, terribly wrong. A game can be a little too earnest and, in doing so, lose the part of games that make games games. They become the one-man shows of video games, they become therapy for the developer, they become fundamentally flawed games that can be best experienced in theory. Papo y Yo, for example, is an earnest game that just really missed so much about the game part.
For all of hubbub around Undertale, and for as much as I've heard about its odd characters and amazing sense of humor, I had heard relatively little about how honest and moving an experience it is. Even the game's humor - which will be brought up a little later in this article - comes from a place that feels true to the creator. I don't know anything about Toby Fox, but I feel like I know exactly what it would be like to talk to him.
Aside from all that, the statement that Undertale makes about player agency and the nature of games - as hackneyed as that can be - is effective and startling. When I reset the game after accidentally killing the first character I came across, reset the game, and the game recognized that I'd done this, I was genuinely taken aback. It's an effective way of letting the player know that the game is watching, and that the structure of "saving" and "loading" and "dying" isn't as simple as it seems.
3. Arkham Knight
Listen, I'll be honest, I don't know what to say about Arkham Knight. I really like Batman, I really like the driving in this game, I really like the car combat and car puzzles, and I fucking love the Joker stuff. Everything that everyone disliked about this game I liked. The combat was slightly worse than the last Batman game, which is slightly worse than Shadow of Mordor; but man, if that last scene with the Joker isn't awesome.
More critically, Arkham Knight remains one of my favorite games of 2015 despite my newfound dislike for open-world games if for no reason other than its impressive density. I think Arkham Knight is potentially weaker in this regard than its predecessors, but the atmosphere and weight of Gotham City left a lasting impression on me. The main Arkham Knight story was serviceable, while side quests - especially the one with Professor Pyg - were varied and engaging and exciting.
Fuck the Riddler though, and his dumb trophies. That shit's the worst.
4. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Let's ignore the story for a second. Like Arkham Knight, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain makes its way onto this list in spite of its open-world nature, but also because of its open world. In a year where Fallout 4 died and sputtered on the pavement, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain delivered an open world that feels full, alive, and never fucking breaks. The mechanics in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain are unbelievable. The stealth and action combine in a way that no other game has achieved before.
What a fucking bummer it is that what may be one of the best games ever made, mechanically, is stuck inside such a lame, perfunctory story.
It's fine. It's like those other games, but kinda slightly worse, but then:
Yo, those weapon transformations are really cool. And the world is kind of grey and same-y, but also pretty cool. The combat is fine. I miss shields and I miss proper upgrade systems, but Bloodborne is great. It's fun, and it controls well, and Dark Souls 3 is coming this year oh my god.
Most Disappointing Games
1. Fallout 4
Alright. Let's talk.
Assassin's Creed: Unity came out last year and was pretty broken. People got really upset. Furious, one might say. And I understood, and everyone understood, and the company apologized, and then eventually all was right with the world.
Fallout 4 came out in November. I bought it on PS4, because it exists there and as such I am allowed to do so. And it was a fucking disaster.
Let's ignore the things that are still bad from a game design perspective. Let's ignore the fact that their "open world do anything anything can happen" shtick has completely ruined the storytelling capability of the series. Let's ignore the fact that the potential the main character had to be an interesting perspective on the apocalypse was wasted entirely, or the fact that he clearly doesn't give a fuck about his stupid kid. Let's ignore the atrocious addition of the settlement system, with sub-Sims-1 object placement and a level of meaninglessness that makes one wonder if the feature is some way of punk-ing the player by seeing how much time they'll waste and how much marketing content they'll generate for zero in-game benefit. Let's ignore the boring questions raised about whether robots are humans, and how unfortunate it is for Bethesda that SOMA came out the same year and nailed that conversation. Let's even ignore the fact that despite the fact that Fallout 4 is functionally the same as Fallout 3 in basically every conceivable way, and seven years have passed, the only thing that improved was the shooting, which is still markedly worse than almost any other popular shooter on the market, while features that have been staples of the Fallout franchise like VATS and the Pip-Boy and SPECIAL and skills have gotten markedly worse.
My version of the game is missing a fucking river.
A FUCKING RIVER.
2. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
I love the Metal Gear series. I've played through each game so many times that the insane, hilarious, incomprehensible-but-still-effective story has permanently embedded itself into my brain. I know how the characters are supposed to act. I've known some of these character for more than fifteen years.
So how does Ocelot never make his little gun gesture?
There aren't many series that have characters so fully explored that I could notice something like this, but it bothered me the whole time I was enjoying the mechanics of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Ocelot didn't act like the cool, cocky, weirdo badass that I had known for four games. Miller was boring. Snake (yea, I know) was completely silent, an auspicious decision when considered in concert with the replacement voice actor. How could a series with so much personality completely fail to deliver on that front?
Spoilers: Fuck that ending. It's bad. I get that there are hints at it, I get the DNA thing, and I get how it fits into the original two Metal Gear games in a way that they obviously didn't plan but is pretty cool. But fuck that. Saying "nothing you did for the last 80 hours matters" is a bad way to pull off a twist. And this second Big Boss, and his gigantic operation and run-in with Liquid, isn't something that wouldn't have come up in MGS 1, 2, or 3. Most importantly, though, all other things being equal - how the fuck did they not have David Hayter voice the real Big Boss' one line at the end of the game?
3. Hotline Miami 2
There were a lot of games I was looking forward to this year, but none disappointed me as immediately as Hotline Miami 2. I waited for this game to come out and downloaded it as soon as the PSN store refreshed, and it was only minutes before - no. Oh, no. No no no no.
I don't have much to say about this game. I played it for maybe an hour. But the subtle story and varied combat that made the first game extraordinary was gone, destroyed. The creators had no idea what made Hotline Miami a success, it seems.
4. Fallout 4
Seriously just, like, the whole fucking river.
5. Axiom Verge
Another game I didn't spend much time with, despite really wanting to enjoy it. Cool, well-designed, but so visually oppressive and by-the-book that I couldn't stick with it, even if the moment-to-moment gameplay felt great. This is probably the game that I feel guiltiest about not enjoying, since on paper it does everything in a way that I should enjoy. However, it is one of a long line of Metroidvania games that makes me think I might not like Metroidvania games.