A lot of games came out in 2015. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, as chances are you have your own pile of shame somewhere nearby to remind you of everything you didn’t have time to play. It’s ridiculous to expect to be able to play everything that comes out in a year, even restricting yourself to only the most critically acclaimed releases (which I’ll be the first to tell you is a terrible way to choose what you play), but the downside of this is a lot of great games, smaller games tend to go by entirely unnoticed. So rather than write up a typical best-of-2015 list (which, having missed out on a lot of this year’s heavy hitters would probably feel incomplete or reaching), here are some of the best games to come out over the last twelve months that chances are you never got around to. These games are weird, and awkward, sometimes completely beyond categorization, and represent some of the coolest games I had the chance to play this year.
Her Story – Sam Barlow (PC, Mac, iOS)
Her Story is probably the most recognizable game on this list, yet even then it seems to have been passed by by the majority of players despite critical acclaim and a remarkably low price of entry. One reason for this I feel is that a lot of people hear about Her Story or look at the screenshots and think they get its hook and therefor don’t need to bother playing it themselves. But what makes Her Story so remarkable is how each player individually takes on the challenge of unravelling the mystery put before them. As you are essentially staring down a search box with only your intellect to guide you, how you experience Her Story comes down entirely to how you deduce what’s going on and your ability to translate that into terms the in game database can understand. It’s a fascinating experiment in nonlinear storytelling and FMV in games, and should be at the top of anyone’s end of year gaming binge.
Gravity Ghost – Ivy Games (PC, Mac)
Gravity Ghost broke me. What looks on the surface like a simple, if absolutely gorgeous gravity puzzle game, is underneath an emotionally devastating story of family turmoil, coming of age, and the price we pay for independence. It’s a game about death that treats it in the most humane and empathetic way possible. It helped me deal with my own grief over the recent passing of my grandfather, and had me at a loss for words at how such a relaxed experience to hit me so hard. Gravity Ghost isn’t going to have this effect on everyone I’m sure, but there is so much going for it – the striking artwork, the brilliant soundtrack, the exceptionally varied and clever puzzle designs – that it’s hard to imagine not finding something beautiful to take away from playing it.
A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build – Draknek (PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android)
Have you ever had a moment in life when it didn’t matter who it was from or for what reason, you just needed to be hugged by someone and know that you weren’t alone? This is, to me, the conceit by which A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build is predicated upon. On the surface it’s a smart puzzle game about building snowpeople out of awkwardly positioned balls of snow, but it’s in the mannerisms of the monster you control that sell it as something more. The way they hug each snowperson they create and gaze through a telescope at something you can never see; it’s an incredibly melancholy experience that needs no words to leave a mark, exploring isolation and loneliness in a way that’s neither patronizing nor derogative. It doesn’t presume to say that there is anything wrong with being alone, but that sometimes even the most introverted of people (or monsters) want someone there with them.
Plug & Play – Etter Studio (PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android)
There aren’t many games that I feel I can recommend without any context or pre-established understanding of a person’s tastes, but I think Plug & Play should be experienced by everyone. Not because I think everyone will appreciate it like I did, but because it’s so bizarre and playful that I simply want to share it with others. It’s pointless to spend much time describing what Plug & Play is, as it’s so reliant on visuals and its internal construction that every word spent on it is just one more keeping you from experiencing it yourself. Suffice it to say it’s unlike any game you’ve ever played, and for being only 15 minutes long left a bigger impression on me than almost anything else I played this year.
The Charnel House Trilogy – Owl Cave (PC)
The Charnel House Trilogy is such a slowburn that it would almost be to its detriment if it wasn’t so calculated and intentional. It’s the most atypical horror game I played all year, blending psychological horror with the supernatural and modern societal terrors in ways that should break apart from over ambition but you’d never know it with how deftly written each unnerving act is written. Owl Cave is one of the most unassuming and talented developers working in the indie scene right now, and it’s a monstrous shame that so few seem to have noticed. The Charnel House Trilogy easily represents some of their best work to date, so if you’re in the mood for something spooky there’s no better time to see just what you’ve been missing.
Metamorphabet – Vectorpark (PC, Mac, iOS)
Metamorphabet came out when I was feeling sick and tired and in no mood for the usual grime that seems to find its way into modern game design (where did the color go?). Many have wrongly assumed that given its focus on illustrating the various letters of the alphabet, Metamorphabet is somehow meant solely for kids and is some new brand of edutainment. This in turn though seems to represent something that has been bugging me with the way a lot of people are beginning to view games, with color and cheerfulness and cute art being equated to something that isn’t worth consideration among the like of AAA shooters and RPGs. Metamorphabet isn’t concerned with violence or expansive open worlds or any buzzword you might find on the back of the latest blockbuster. It abounds with a childhood curiosity that turns something as simple as the letter P into a dreamlike exploration of language as a whole. It managed to make me smile in a time when all I wanted to do was curl up and sleep forever, and sometimes a smile is all you need to begin to feel better.
Read Only Memories – Midboss (PC, Mac, Linux)
Maybe it’s premature to include this as I’m still an hour or so from the end, but I’m so ridiculously impressed with what I’ve played of Read Only Memories so far and it’s been so horribly passed over that I can’t bear not to put it on this list. A cyberpunk point-and-click adventure game dealing in investigative journalism, artificial life, and gender politics, Read Only Memories is out to make a difference in a medium that so often treats diversity as a zero sum game. It’s witty and honest and features an adorable gay bartending couple who are allowed to simply exist. Read Only Memories is so great because it’s so queer without needing to make that its defining trait. It’s inclusive without necessarily needing to be about inclusion, and if that isn’t enough its 80’s cyberpunk action movie mystery presents an expertly paced narrative that has been all I can think about since I started playing a few days ago (yeah, I’m cutting it close with this one). Maybe it all falls apart in the end, but it’s on such a roll that it’s hard to see how it could fail hard enough to not be worth a spot on this list.
Update (01/2/2016): Full Review
This list isn’t nearly long enough to encompass ever great game that came out this year to too small an audience, but like everyone I wasn’t able to get to everything I wanted to this year, and so a lot of deserving games have no doubt been excluded. So naturally the only thing left to do is turn to you, beloved internet stranger (or maybe I know you; I love you all regardless), to let me know what some of your favorite lowscale hits were this year. It might be impossible to play everything, but it’s also incredibly exciting to be in a time when so many incredible games are being released, doing incredible things and building new spaces for those who might be excluded by big budget releases. It’s been an amazing year for game releases, and from the look of things it’s only going to get better come 2016!