The 20 Best Games I Played in 2015

For the last few years I have compiled a reflection on the top twenty games that I played in that year (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011). I do this partly because creating ranked lists is fun, and partly because it encourages me to remember games and experiences beyond the immediate past. Importantly, I deliberately ensure these lists are of games I played throughout that year, not games that were released that year. That a game came out in 2009 is no reason for it to not stand on its own against a 2015 game, unless you only measure games by a boring and particularly reductive measure of technological fidelity.

As usual, I am going to list twenty games this year. Last year, I decided to do away with numbered rankings. This year, I am doing numbers again mostly just because I feel pretty confident with the order I have placed them. 

20. Rocket League (Psyonix)

Rare is the competitive game that I will commit to for long enough to place on a GOTY list. I simply just do not enjoy directly competitive styles of play. Rocket League is thus exceptional in both senses of the word.

Whereas other multiplayer games become sports simply because enough players are committed enough to playing them, Rocket League actively presents itself as a sport. Its beauty is in the simplicity of its conceit: soccer, but with cars. It captures the difficulty of controlling a ball without only your feet, the frustration of the near-miss, and the ecstatic and spectacular joy of the goal that actually makes it.

Everything in Rocket League is carefully considered. Each and every mechanic reinforces the soccer metaphor while also allowing unique and advanced modes of engagement. Covering it all is an insurmountable layer of polish and care. The ease with which the camera can be flicked to lock onto the ball’s position; the bright and contrasted colours ensuring you always know what way you are facing; the tight controls; the camera shake; the way the ball glows as it enters the goal and the explosion that blasts the player cars back like a soccer player doing her victory lap. Rocket League is that rare videogame that makes me sweat with adrenaline and anxiety, that has me tilting and rotating the controller in my hand as though I have never held one before. It bodily engrosses me in my character in a way that decades of videogame play has taught me to suppress. That all comes down to how well it feels to play.

An interesting thing to consider: for all its modelling of soccer, it is impossible to cheat in Rocket League. If you can do something, it was allowed by the game programming and is thus permitted. Rules, in sport, exist to prevent the players from doing things that are physically possible (such as picking the soccer ball up in your hands). Rules, in this sense, don’t exist in videogames. They exist around videogames (screencheating, kicking the controller out of your mate’s hands, disconnecting the internet before you lose a game) but they do not exist within videogames. Videogames, unlike non-digital sport, are constrained by what is possible, not what is allowed. That Rocket League works so hard to affectively simulate soccer renders it an interesting place to interrogate this.

19. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (Techland)

While the rest of the Call of Juarez franchise is by all accounts as terrible as it looks, Gunslinger is an interesting Western-themed first-person shooter that plays around with reality and authenticity in all sorts of clever ways. The basic pitch is that a drunk gunslinger walks into a bar and begins telling stories of his escapades, which the player acts out. As the gunslinger drinks more and more, his stories get more audacious and less believable, much like a typical videogame progresses. At one point, another drinker buts in and tells his own version of events for the player to act out, only to be rewound and acted out differently when the gunslinger retells it in his own fashion. By the end of the game, what the player is doing has only the slimmest thread tying it to any sort of reality as the player hunts down the ghosts of dead cowboys and bandits as the drunken gunslinger goes mad.

The game itself is solid-enough first-person shooter fare. In a way it was nice to return to a time where non-automatic weapons dominated shooters. The Borderlands-lite rpg elements and cell-shading complemented the game’s stance as a subjective representation detached from any sort of unobtainable reality. Gunslinger is a conventional shooter anchored to a sinking franchise that explores fresh and original ideas. Still worth tracking down and checking out.

18. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate (Capcom)

I purchased Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate with my 3DS and returned it a couple of days later. I hated it. It felt, in some ways, like the exact sort of janky and obtuse Japanese game I love to get to know, but I found it so impossible to play with only one thumbstick that I quickly gave up. With Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, I decided to try again, this time on a New 3DS with its second thumbstick. More than the second thumbstick, it was how everyone spoke about Monster Hunter that made me want to give the series a second try. The particular brand of jankiness blended with the sort of game that would be opaque and confusing but deep and rewarding if I was patient enough to stick with it.

Eventually, I gave up on Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate as well, but not before getting much more involved than previously. I put this down, partially, to a much better paced game. Monster Hunter 3 assumed a certain familiarity with the series that it made the game incredibly front-heavy with tutorials and slow missions, confident that the player knew they would get to the more meaty stuff eventually. As a newcomer to the series, however, it just left me bored and unsatisfied. In Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, you are hunting larger monsters within a few missions, instantly being given a taste of what is in store for you if you stick with the game. It’s a small taste, but a taste nonetheless.

But what was really rewarding with Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate was playing locally with friends who better understood the series. A few Sunday afternoons in a row were spent at the local pub with game journalist Nathan Cocks as we drank a pint, ate a parma, and worked our way through a series of hunts. Nathan is a much more dedicated Monster Hunter player than myself, and was able to walk and talk me through the game’s more obscure systems.

Finally, I feel like I was able to catch a glimpse of the series’ pleasures. The slow, strategic satisfaction of tracking a hunt across different areas of a map; the frustrating/rewarding back-and-forth of fighting the same boss over and over in hope of particular loot drops to craft a particular weapon. The very particular and unmistakable slow animation style. I remember a moment of epiphany where I realised that Monster Hunter is not a slow real-time game but a fast turn-based game where you choose a move and then watch that animation run its course.

Monster Hunter is special if only because it is so weird. I will probably not return to Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, and I will probably never play another Monster Hunter game, but I at last finally feel like I can appreciate it.

17. Just Cause 3 (Avalanche)

A couple of weeks before Just Cause 3 came out, I unthinkingly purchased Fallout 4. However, my panic at having two massive open-world games on my plate quickly turned to bafflement at just how quickly I became fatigued towards Fallout 4. I wasn’t expecting anything new or innovative or out of the ordinary; all I was expecting was just another Bethesda Content Bucket to sink into for a hundred hours and then never touch again. Certainly, sunk hours into it I have done, but by the time Just Cause 3 released, I felt no anxiety in stepping away from Fallout 4. The reason why, I think, is that Fallout 4’s world is just so similar to Fallout 3’s. It has never before bothered me that every Bethesda game is mechanically practically the same, because in every game since Morrowind I have been able to explore a dramatically different world, be that the different regions of The Elder Scroll’s Tamriel, or the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3. Now, with Fallout 4, the environment is so similar to Fallout 3, that I just feel no pull to fully explore it. I feel like I have already been here.

So I was anxious, once Just Cause 3 came out, that maybe it too would just be more of the same as its predecessor, and I would quickly tire of it. In many ways, Just Cause 3 is just more of Just Cause 2 in a new map, and I have played more than enough of Just Cause 2 over the past years. Yet, I have not tired of Just Cause 3 in the way I tired of Fallout 4. This is because, I think, of just the tiniest little design decisions that Just Cause 3 makes that mesh with the existing design elements that have been carried over from Just Cause 2 to feel less like repetition and more like iteration.

Just Cause 3 feels like the developers spent a lot of time thinking about what, exactly, made Just Cause 2 such a success, and then honed in on those elements. Especially in terms of movement. In Just Cause 2 you had this extensive repertoire of Ways To Move (grappling hook, parachute, walking, falling) which could each be combined and sequenced differently to achieve a really satisfying and fluid movement across the map. Just Cause 3 not only recaptures this pleasure of movement but iterates on it with the wingsuit. It’s one added feature, but it combines with all the existing abilities to exponentially increase the ways you can traverse the landscape. I’m especially enjoying combining the wingsuit with the grappling hook to climb hills. When you crash with the wingsuit, you ragdoll for a while, but even while ragdolling you are still able to grapple onto a surface to cancel the ragdoll and continue moving. It makes the occasional crash as satisfying as the crashes avoided.

Beyond this, Just Cause 3 simply provides an opportunity to remember what was so special about Just Cause 2. While most games in the Grand Theft Auto III-style open-world shoot-and-drive stuff genre are sheepish of their desire to just be a power fantasy playground for the player, obscuring their pleasures by sandwiching them between “serious” narrative bits, Just Cause 3 and its predecessor relish in their absurdity and pointlessness. Why are you doing this? Just ‘cause. It’s a big expensive time wasting blockbuster that is not trying to be anything other than a big expensive time wasting blockbuster. It’s a sincerity I always appreciate in blockbuster games. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate a more authored, story-driven game in an open-world—I loved Grand Theft Auto IV for being precisely this. But the way Grand Theft Auto V returned to its conflicted nature where ‘story’ and ‘mucking around’ felt so disjointed has me thankful for the Just Cause series that commits to the ‘mucking around’ mindset fully.

Also worthy of note in Just Cause 3 is the stunning environment design that has just been so carefully crafted. Cows napping in meadows of sunflowers. Quilted meadows between cliffs on one side and a snaking highway on the other before the endless expanse of blue water. Most bafflingly, a huge amount of the map is unpopulated in the sense that there are no towns on it, just endless forest and ruins and the occasional military base. It’s surreal. Someone has spent a lot of time creating this world and then just placed it there for, primarily, the player to discover in their own time. For all of Just Cause 3’s focus on explosions and fast movement, it presents you with exactly the world you just want to take a walk through. The care with which this world has been crafted is almost unprecedented.

Also significant is Just Cause 3‘s I suspect deliberate and conscious inclusion in a whole range of women characters. Not just as main characters in the story (of which there are at least 4 so far) but, crucially, as just run-of-the-mill good guys and bad guys. In the middle of a gunfight, the rebel jeep rocking up to support you might have women fighters jump out and start blasting. When the army jeep rocks up to take you out, it might have women soldiers jump out and try to take you out. This is so important: women aren’t just present tokenistically as major story characters, but populate the world as both generic good guys and generic bad guys. It sounds counter-intuitive, but for the people you are shooting and killing in a videogame to be not just males is so important for videogames to actually become more representative. I’m really glad to see it here.

So Just Cause 3 is pointless, but a pointless that feels so carefully designed and crafted. Where Fallout 4 has largely made me question what the point is of spending so many hours playing a large open-world game, Just Cause 3 has reassured me that it is okay for a game to be pointless.

16. Emotica (Anna Anthropy, Liz Ryerson, Leon Arnott)

One of the best books about videogames of recent times is Anna Anthropy’s ZZT for Boss Fight Books. It effortlessly jumps from historical context to cultural analysis to code deconstruction of the game by the same name. It’s this wonderful and holistic approach to a game and the culture that rose up around it written so well that the fact I had never even seen a screenshot of the game did not hinder my enjoyment of the book.

Where ZZT’s level editor allowed the construction of robust worlds and stories in ASCII symbols, Anthropy, Liz Ryerson, and Leon Arnott’s Emotica does the same for emoticons. It’s an ingenious idea, delivered with accessibility and simplicity. Place some emoticons around the map, imbue them with projected meaning and basic programming, and let the player walk around.

I do wish it had some more functionality. Switches you could activate from afar would add a lot of robustness. More importantly, the ability to play a level without permanently altering that level would go a long way (when last I played, if you rendered items collectible, then collected them, there was no way to have them reappear without manually placing them again, making testing all but impossible). But still, the lack of this functionality fosters the general sense of openness and the low barrier of entry that the game is striving for.

Mostly, I think Emotica is a charming idea that I hope gains support and a community over the coming years. But more, I think Emotica is admirable in the way it continues Anthropy’s reflexive work as both critic and creator where both her written work and her design work each continue to influence the other.

15. SK Games

A post shared by Brendan Keogh (@brkeogh) on

There are a few entries on this year’s list that are not a game but a team or individual’s collection of works that I engaged with over the past year. Perth-based group SK Games is the first of these. I first encountered SK Games through a video they contributed to last year’s Freeplay Festival’s Parallels event. Since then, I’ve met SK’s Louie and Sophie at a variety of events—usually at ones they themselves have hosted.

They make a lot of games, often with peculiar customised hardware, but it’s the events that make SK Games so exciting. Whereas many Australian developers not based in Melbourne complain about the Melbourne centricity of the local game scene (unfairly, in my opinion, but that’s a whole different post), SK built their own community. They produce a range of rought-and-tumble arcade-y games with custom-hardware, and sell cheap beer to attract the crowds. I’ve marvelled at every SK Games event I’ve been to at how little they feel like ‘game events’ and how much they feel like just going to a gig. The venues are different (one was in a back alley art space, the other in a queer book store with games projected over the bookshelves covered in naked male torsos); the crowds that rock up are different; the atmosphere is different. People who would never go to a ‘videogame event’ will rock up to an SK Games event.

#videofuckinggames

A post shared by Brendan Keogh (@brkeogh) on

SK Games present a vision of what an Australian videogame culture could be that is an alternative to both the Melbourne art students and the East Coast mobile studios. It’s an Australian videogame culture that is local, collective, rough, irreverent, and more in conversation with other local creative cultures. I’ve found the SK Games events I’ve been to over the past year nothing short of inspirational for what I want the local games culture of whatever city I live in to be like.

14. N++ (Metanet)

It’s amusing to think that when N first launched with its greyscale colour palette, it was presenting something unique to games. It was aiming for constraint and minimalism when most games of the time (especially in the free browser-based flash game space) were defined by over-the-top effects and music and offensiveness. Now, both indie minimal games and grey-only games are everywhere, which makes N++ a curiosity in the way it is doing something very new and slick, but also very much already done.

Perhaps more important is that N++ feels like it has accomplished what both and N+ were trying to accomplish. With N++, I feel as though I have finally tapped into the sense of flowing momentum that both N and N+ strived for. I’m not sure what is different about N++ that allowed this to happen for me, whether it is a difference in the level design or more fluid controls or some other factor. I think, perhaps, it was a more subtle but also more explicit form of tutoring that the game’s early stages perform, cryptically teaching the player how inertia works, or how jumping off a slanted surface can propel you further into the air. The game never straight out told me how to play, but the names of levels merged with the lure of gold coins to afford my figuring it out for myself.

More than how it controls, N++ is a meticulously designed piece of software. It is the immaculate designer kitchen showcase room of videogames. The menus, the music playlist, the colour palettes. It’s cool and slick. Just having it on in the background makes my lounge room feel more expensive. The soundtrack got me through the final months of my PhD.

13. Hurt Me Plenty / Succulent / Stick Shift / Cobra Club / Rinse and Repeat (Robert Yang)

Robert Yang has produced one of the most important bodies of work of the past year. Since December 2014 he has released Hurt Me Plenty, Succulent, Stick Shift, Cobra Club, and Rinse and Repeat (as well as rereleased his mod Radiator, but I haven’t played that yet). I find this group of games fascinating for a range of reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, they are an articulate and mature pondering on issues surrounding male sexuality and bodies. The overwhelming majority of videogames are about masculinity by default, but very few consciously say anything about masculinity in any meaningful way. This in itself makes Yang’s games worthy of applause.

Further, they are explicitly gay and explicitly sexual, but completely at ease with themselves. A game about jerking off your car (Stick Shift) or about taking dick pics (Cobra Club) are always going to be met by awkward chuckles and blushed faces, but you get the sense while playing the games that the games themselves are not chuckling and that you, the player, are kind of immature for laughing at this game just because it has a penis in it. But that isn’t to say the games are over-serious, either. They’re just… comfortable. Well-realised, confident, and comfortable.

Beyond anything the games themselves are about, I think they are further worthy of attention for the open process they represent. It is rare around games to see a single designer explore and iterate on a single idea over a series of short games released in a timely manner. It is rarer still to see a designer release an “artist’s statement” alongside each game to complement it. Yang has done so for each of his games, and as I’ve explored elsewhere, the whole series has gained much from this.

Mostly, I see these games as an exciting different way to produce and release games: a serious of small but well-considered vignettes released over a year, rather than a single big release every few years. That each and every one of them is an articulate and incredible exploration of its subject matter is just a bonus.

12. Eurotruck Simulator 2 (SCS Software)

I want a roadtrip game. I don’t just mean a game with a roadtrip in it (we are getting quite a few of those) but a game really about taking a roadtrip. I want a game about the intimate handlings of the bits and knobs and pedals of a car, about the long stretches of boring monotony, about the pleasures of seeing not just point A and point B, but the vast spectrum of points between those points that show how they are not ‘points’ at all.

It will probably be a long time before I get that game (because it will require the sort of budget that practically ensures a game will not at all be about doing ‘nothing’), but in the meantime, Eurotruck Simulator 2 gets pretty close. With the exception of trying to reverse park your trailer at the end of your trip, not a lot eventful happens in Eurotruck Simulator 2: you sit on the freeway at cruise control; you change lanes every now and then. Sometimes, for short periods of time, you find yourself on winding backroads that demand a bit more attention, but for the most part you are just sitting on cruise control, keeping between the lines, and watching out for speed cameras.

It’s wonderful. Truly, utterly wonderful. The scenery is beautiful and changes regularly. The seeming ‘boringness’ of not a lot happening is actually the moment-to-moment commitment required to move a big vehicle in a straight line at a consistent speed. You aren’t shooting targets or doing mad drifts, but why should flicking the indicator on or merging into a different lane around roadwork be any less meaningful interactions?

Sometimes I think Eurotruck Simulator 2 is the closest I’m going to get to the roadtrip game of my dreams. Other times, I realise it truly is the roadtrip game of my dreams. All it needs is a Hume Highway DLC.

11. Brolly Folly (Alexander Perrin)

Alexander Perrin is one of the most interesting people making games and game-like stuff in Australia. He does some incredible and intimidating things, and you should probably hire him for something. Brolly Folly is a local two-player game obtainable through the All Day Breakfast collective’s Fruit Salad bundle, and is exemplary of the way Perrin makes really incredible ideas look simple and straightforward.

Two umbrellas fight to the death. Hit the tip of the other player’s umbrella with your own, and you win. That’s basically it. What is so excellent about the game is how the umbrella’s control. They fly exactly how you would expect a sentient umbrella to fly. Imagine Luftrauser’s controls with flapping instead of a thrust: left and right to rotate anti-clockwise and clockwise, and the right trigger to flap your umbrella and push yourself in the direction you are facing. It feels really good to just fly around.

fffffffffff

A post shared by Brendan Keogh (@brkeogh) on

Both Brolly Folly and Perrin deserve a lot more attention.

10. Little Party (turnfollow)

Little Party is a lovely short game about being a mum and trying to stay out of the way while your daughter has a party with all her arty friends. There aren’t a whole lot of games about parenthood generally and even less about motherhood, and even less about being a middle-aged women, and Little Party stands out for approaching such a unique perspective while never making that perspective feel like anything other than the utterly normal and mundane perspective that it should be.

The game is advanced by walking around your house and talking to your daughter and her friends. At times it can be difficult to figure out where to go next, and the slow movement speed exasperates this. The fish-eye movement of the camera can also be nauseating. Despite this, the game evokes this real powerful sense of being an outsider in your own home as you try not to be the awkward mum while inevitably being just that. It’s beautifully presented with its two-dimensional characters in a three-dimensional world, and shuns typically mouse-and-keyboard controls for a more straightforward arrow-keys-only with no strafing, which is great for accessibility.

It’s also just another game about an entirely banal event, which is something I will always celebrate and give a platform.

9. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (Konami)

Few things perplex me more than game critics incapable of appreciating a Hideo Kojima game. I don’t mean game critics who don’t like Hideo Kojima games—that’s completely fine. I don’t mean game critics who remark on the blatant sexism of Hideo Kojima games or ignore them because of that sexism—that is certainly completely fine. I mean the game critics who write off his games as problematically self-indulgent, or as wanting to be films, or as unnecessarily bloated. Those are the ones that perplex me. Kojima’s games are gloriously self-indulgent in a way rarely capable or sustainable in the blockbuster space; they actually acknowledge the rich overlap that exists between the media of film and videogames in a far deeper appreciation of form than just using cut-scenes to deliver story; they are relatively short and focused stories that are not bloated but instead offer a vast spectrum of peripheral systems the player can choose to engage with if they wish, or ignore if they wish.

I want more games in the blockbuster space to be like Hideo Kojima games in the sense that I want more blockbuster games that, despite being the product of hundreds of people and dictated by the shareholders of massive corporations, so clearly communicate the creative ambition of a single creative lead. This is worth stressing: I don’t want more Hideo Kojima’s; I want more other creators given the same budget and space and confidence and clarity of vision to make such jarringly weird stuff in the blockbuster space as Kojima gets to make.

Though, of course, the fallout between Konami and Kojima towards the end of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain suggests that that is probably not going to happen any time soon, or that it is even sustainable. But even that makes Kojima’s games—and in particular The Phantom Pain—even more exciting. This is unsustainable art. This is a game so audacious, so ambitious, so stubbornly dedicated to a particular dream that it was literally impossible for it to be created within the company that created it. That just makes The Phantom Pain all the more exciting a game to play. It’s essentially a commercially released unfinished prototype of a dream game Kojima wanted to make but was never going to be able to. There’s an enthusiasm to the dream of The Phantom Pain and a tragedy to the reality.

The whole third act of The Phantom Pain is missing. The whole second act consists primarily of the missions of the first act with some slightly different challenges, and the occasional ‘story bit’ slipped in between them to advance the stalled plot. The game runs for sixty-odd hours, then never really concludes. At some point, Kojima clearly asked Konami for more time and/or money, and Konami said no, put the game out. Now. We want our return.

It’s the transparency of The Phantom Pain as a thing that exists in the world, not just a hole in a television screen through to a virtual world. This has always been Hideo Kojima’s strength, an ability to articulate and play with the formal elements of videogames (which are different from the formal elements of games) in a way that draws the player’s attention to the videogame-ness of the videogame, to the artifice that is typically used to obscure itself. The Phantom Pain’s incompleteness—and the way it remains such a confident work despite this incompleteness—feels like both an extension of this and a fitting conclusion. What better way to end the Metal Gear Solid series than a game that draws attention to and deconstructs the context within such games are made?

None of this is to say that The Phantom Pain is not a good game in and of itself. It is a magnificent game, full of little experimental touches and confident aesthetic decisions. It radically alters the Metal Gear Solid formula while also accentuating its core elements. The player’s choice to be violent are meaningfully and systemically consequential. Shoot soldiers in the head to make things easier, they will eventually start wearing helmets. You don’t get ‘good’ or ‘bad’ karma for your actions; you create a world gradually that emerges from how you decide to act, and then you must re-adapt to that world. Meanwhile, serious thematic issues such as the violent and lingering legacy of colonialism on Africa or the global and cultural oppressiveness of English are discussed without the adolescent grimdark moodiness of most ‘serious’ blockbuster titles. Most spectacular is ‘The Hamburgers of Kazuhira Miller’ series of audiotapes that discuss American empire through the humble hamburger.

“Oh but that’s just off in some audiotape!” some will object. But that’s the thing. Nothing is peripheral in Kojima’s games. Play, cut-scenes, menus, audiotapes, instruction manuals, easter eggs. Every videogame-y element of his titles are given equal appreciation and treated as equally worthy as an expressive element of the creative work.

The Phantom Pain is a wonderful, ambitious, mature, confident, absolutely broken mess, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

8. Nuclear Throne (Vlambeer)

I have been following Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne throughout its adventures in Steam Early Access (and apparently put in on my Top Games of 2014 list as well!), and I have been following Vlambeer ever since they released Radical Fishing in 2010. Vlambeer games feel really good to play, and each of their games hook into me like a dopamine drip. I have spent many, many hours on both Super Crate Box and Luftrausers chasing high scores not because of some sense of systemic mastery but because they just felt really good to engage with. I wanted to play ‘just one more’ game not because I might do better but simply because I didn’t want to stop yet.

Nuclear Throne continues this style of play-that-just-feels-good design but now combines it with complex systems. Actually, I think that is unfair. All of Vlambeer’s previous games have been systemically interesting in their own ways. I guess what Nuclear Throne brings is a certain amount of systemic depth the previous games did not have (nor did they need). There is a lot going on in Nuclear Throne, much of which I would be completely ignorant of if I had not read fan wikis and the developers’ updates during the game’s Early Access campaign.

It feels as though the game is going for a Super Mario World style of discovery, with systems and places and items hidden deep within its systems that couldn’t all possibly end up on a GameFAQ as soon as the game is released. But there’s also a communal sense of exploration, much like with Spelunky, where one YouTuber discovering a secret feels like everyone discovering that secret.

There’s an immediately gratification to Nuclear Throne for those that just want to shoot stuff for a while, and a deeper elegance that is reached for through overdosing on that gratification.

Vlambeer make exactly the kinds of games I want to play. They make exactly the kinds of games I want my students to make: simple, well-scoped, elegantly designed, and polished the heck out of. They make games that understand that systems are only as interesting as the interface through which the player is able to bodily engage with them.

(As a side note: I want to congratulate Vlambeer for making explicit in their full release version that the game was made in GameMaker Studio. There is an ongoing bullshit notion in games culture that a game is only as advanced as the tools used to make it. By explicitly stating that this great game was made with a tool as simple as GameMaker, Vlambeer work to make the process of game design less opaque. By humbly ‘admitting’ what tools they use, they are able to say “You can make this, too.” It’s a small touch, but one I am glad to see.)

7. Doom Dream / Southbank Portrait / Reflection / Vertex Meadow (Ian MacLarty)

I see Melbourne’s Ian MacLarty as a sort of combination of Australia’s Michael Brough and Australia’s Increpare. I think I associate him with the former because of his visual aesthetic, and the latter because of his prolificness. MacLarty creates a range of fascinating, evocative, and confidently realised little projects, and if you have no checked out his work before I strongly encourage you do so.

Throughout 2015, MacLarty’s has been playing with 3D world generation with his own homebrew game engine across a range of titles. Doom Dream is the first of these titles (to the best of my knowledge), produced by MacLarty after a vivid dream about walking around the corridors of Doom. It evokes a disorientating and claustrophobic sense of walking around an endless and twisting labyrinth.

MacLarty then used the same technology as part of a game jam held during the Freeplay Independent Game Festival in Melbourne to produce Southbank Portrait. In the lead up to this jam was a series of talks by people beyond games on topics including feminism and indigenous rights and culture. During the indigenous rights and culture discussion it was mentioned how the Yarra River that runs through Melbourne river on which the talks took place at Southbank did not always run where it runs today but was diverted by white people when they arrived in the area. I know outlets have reported on Southbank Portrait as a game ‘about’ indigenous culture and history, and I know that MacLarty is not at all comfortable with that inaccurate description of the game, but I believe that talk did influence the game as it experiments with exploring the cultural, aural, and subjective experience of Southbank as a space. MacLarty walked around Southbank, capturing audio and photos, then used this data to generate an ever-morphing 3D world for the player to walk around. The result is what I believe to be the most important Australian videogame of the last year, and one that has not received nearly enough attention.

MacLarty then had this technology from both Doom Dream and Southbank Portrait that allowed him to convert flat images to three-dimensional worlds to explore through what I understand is essentially height-mapping. Reflection is the result of this: a game that reads data from the player’s webcam to render what it sees into abstract worlds to explore. Take a photo of yourself then climb up your eyeballs or down into the valley of your beard.

Then, to see out 2015, the engine that MacLarty has been finessing to create these incredible experiences was made available to the public through Vertex Meadow. In an email, MacLarty described it to me as “PuzzleScript for walking simulators”, and it is a tool that has me very excited about its potential and what people are going to do with it.

Together, from the dream that birthed Doom Dream to the fully featured tool that will allow others to build their own dreams, this series of works demonstrate just why MacLarty is one of the most exciting people creating games at present in Australia.

6. Downwell (Moppin)

Mobile game of the year. Moppin’s commercial debut takes the best elements of Spelunky and Nuclear Throne and fuses them into a mobile-friendly package. A rushed fall down a well, with bullets shot out of your feet to slow your fall, recharged either by touching the ground or jumping on an enemy. A twitchy game using on-screen buttons, the size of Downwell’s buttons and their virtual clunkiness manage to avoid feeling like compromised design. Rarely have I had issue with my fingers being in the wrong place.

Like any good action roguelike, Downwell’s various systems all reinforce and strengthen each other, combining reflex action and immediate gratification with swift decision making and deep systemic comprehension—much like Nuclear Throne. Also like Nuclear Throne, it is just a sheer pleasure to engage with. There’s just the right amount of screenshake; suspending your body in the air for a split second with each shot never stops being exhilarating; jumping on 25 enemies in a row without touching the ground feels nothing short of godlike.

Wrapping it all up is this minimal monochrome palette interspersed with the sharp reds of objects/enemies you can’t touch and the gems you must collect. The low-res pixel art also belies some wonderful animations that can be easily missed without really being focused on.

Downwell feels like the sort of obscure mobile game that should have come out in the mobile heydays of 2010. That there is still a space for it (and, I hope, a market) on mobile devices reassures me I’ll be playing games on this device for many years to come.

Here is a wonderful essay Doug Wilson wrote about Downwell for Polygon. Here is Cara Ellison’s ‘Embed With…’ essay on the game’s designer.

5. Yoshi’s Woolly World (Nintendo)

Few games manage to offer an ‘easy’ mode without it feeling patronising. You die ten times and a game reminds you that, look, just saying, you could turn the difficulty down. When you do give in and turn the difficulty down, it is clear the game was not balanced for this mode at all. It was an afterthought for people who are shit at games, like you. It is a lesser achievement to finish the game in this mode.

Yoshi’s Woolly World is an adorable and wonderful game for a whole range of reasons, but it is most applaudable for the care with which its easier ‘mellow mode’ was designed. Rather than just offering more lives or less enemies or some sort of quick solution for a player unable (or unwilling) to cope with the game’s ‘normal’ mode, Mellow Mode offers a range of small but considerable tweaks and changes that ensure Mellow Mode feels very much like its own legitimate experience.

Some examples: usually, holding the jump button will make Yoshi jump, hover for a bit, then fall back to the ground. In Mellow Mood, holding the jump button will allow Yoshi to hover in the air with wings indefinitely. This allows the player to make the game’s various tricky platforming bits to be as easy or as difficult as they wish it to me. Elsewhere, in normal mode the crosshair for aiming eggs bounces back and forward at a great speed while, in Mellow Mode it is, well, more mellow, letting the player take their time.

Mellow Mode respects the player who doesn’t want a dexterous challenge just to access the game’s pleasures, and this is something I hope to see other games repeat in the future.

Beyond Mellow Mode, Woolly World is a worthy successor to Yoshi’s Island, with many of the same puzzles and elements as the Super Nintendo classic, but reimagined and remixed in different ways, and never just relying on the nostalgia hit. The consistent aesthetic of the stitched-together world is beautifully executed (with the baffling exception of the collectable gems) from the cotton-wool clouds to the sequin snowflakes. Each new stage was exciting mostly to see how the next element was going to be conveyed. Much like Tearaway, the whole world felt tangible and possible.

4. Earth Defence Force 2025 (Sandlot)

Somehow I missed Earth Defence Force 2025’s release in mid-2014, only discovering its existence early this year. Sadly, several days before I discovered it, I had boxed up my PlayStation 3 and sent it two states away and I would not be following for a few months. That was an excruciating wait.

The lure of the Earth Defence Force games is hard to pin down (though I have tried). It’s the roughness that gives them such a distinct character. It’s the campy b-grade sci-fi accentuated by too-literal localisation into English from the original Japanese. It’s the legitimately satisfying diverse feel of the different weapons. I just really love a well put-together, low budget game I think.

The only other Earth Defence Force title I’ve spent an extended period of time with is 2017 Portable on the PlayStation Vita, of which 2025 is a direct sequel. The shift from 2017 to 2025 felt akin to playing Halo 3 for the first time after years with the previous-generation titles. Partially, it evoked this simply because 2025 is really shiny in much the same way Halo 3 was really shiny. But more than this was a largely technophilic excitement for having more stuff on a bigger screen with better resolution. It was a very base pleasure in a ‘next-gen’ sequel, the sort I would usually roll my eyes at. But playing the first few stages of 2025, I just had the biggest, corniest grin on my face.

It was bigger, meatier, punchier, sillier, whackier. There were more enemies and more types of enemies. There were more stages, and twice as many characters with which each stage needs to be completed on five different difficulties. Sandlot handed me a big ol’ bucket of content and I just shoved my face right into it.

Earth Defence Force is easy to dismiss for its mindlessness, but its a very satisfying and deliberate mindlessness. It’s the sort of game I can just load up and smash through a few levels to kill some time. It also provokes a perfectionist streak in me. I want to finish every single mission with every single character on every single difficulty. I’ll never actually do that, but the fact that every time I play can get me a bit closer to that objective keeps me coming back. I will be playing Earth Defence Force 2025 for many years to come.

3. The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden)

There’s not much to say about The Beginner’s Guide that I did not already say about it when I first played it. It’s a brutally honest, sincere, reflective, and earnest game about the creative process and how audiences engage with creative works. There’s no shortage of such works in existence, but precious few that tackle these themes through the form of videogames, and even less that tackles them in relation to videogame development. The Beginner’s Guide’s greatest accomplishment, I think, is it does this so effortlessly while feeling neither obnoxiously self-aware of anxiously self-conscious. It just does what it sets out to do, and then it leaves.

The Beginner’s Guide manages to be about a very specific, very niche subculture (Source modders around the mid-to-late 2000s) while also being hugely accessible to a broader audience. With the exception of needing to handle WASD-and-mouse controls, I would suspect that even players not tapped into gaming culture would get a lot out of it. It’s friendly and welcoming, and Wreden-as-narrator never assumes the player to have a pre-existing knowledge of the stuff he is talking about. Yet, at the same time, if the player does have some understanding of modding scenes or student projects or the Source engine, The Beginner’s Guide presents itself as an immaculately put-together work created by someone who clearly knows what they are talking about.

People were still suspicious, of course. For a range of complex reasons I’m not sure I fully understand, game critics (and players) seem very untrusting of any game that wears its heart on its sleeve, and even more distrusting of any game that seems to be ‘about games’ in any fashion. Just like Wreden’s previous game The Stanley Parable, I’ve seen people suspicious of The Beginner’s Guide as being too smarmy and pompous, as being insincere. It’s a perspective that I think first requires propping the games up on the very same imaginary pedestals that such critics complain the games stand on. It requires over-complicating what the games are about and what they achieve. Both The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide are very well put-together games about very simple topics. Not simple in the sense they present questions that have clear answers, but simple in the sense that what questions they present are pretty obvious from very early on.

So while I never want to read another academic paper pointing out the very obvious themes of The Stanley Parable ever again, I don’t roll my eyes at the games themselves for any sort of self-aggrandisement. On the contrary, I see Wreden’s titles as very simple, very specific, and possessing a pronounced sense of clarity and confidence in what they want to say and how they want to say it.

2. Bloodborne (From Software)

Dark Souls wasn’t a good game because it was hard. Lots of games are hard, both good and bad. It’s not difficult to make a hard game (as my recent experiments with Super Mario Maker have taught me); and it requires a lot of care to make a good easy game (as my experience with Yoshi’s Woolly World’s Mellow Mode showed me). Dark Souls was a good game because it always provided a challenge equal to your ability yet never assuredly surmountable. As I’ve written elsewhere, the difficulty of Dark Souls was passive. Just like many of the enemies that populated its world, Dark Souls stood back with its arms folded and waited for you to come to it on your own terms. This wasn’t the hyper-aggressive heatseeking hunter-killer difficulty of a bullet-hell shooter or Doom on Nightmare Mode; this is the knight standing with his arms folded, back to you, waiting for you to make the first move. I never finished Dark Souls, but I certainly appreciated it. I have played harder games, but I have not played any other game where overcoming a challenge felt so intrinsically rewarding—like I had done something worthy of feeling pleased about.

Bloodborne is, I think, not as hard as Dark Souls. For one thing, I was actually able to finish it. But Bloodborne was not a lesser game than Dark Souls; on the contrary, that Bloodborne was just as rewarding but not as difficult provides the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that ‘difficulty’ alone never did adequately account for what made Dark Souls a good game. It was always the passivity, the way it let the player determine when and what terms a challenge will be confronted. Bloodborne is much the same, yet also quite different. It’s enemies are more feral, more aggressive than Dark Souls’s. They will come running up to you; they will snipe you from a distance. It worked to make Bloodborne feel faster and slightly more twitchy than did Dark Souls.

But rather than unbalance the passivity of Dark Souls, it just reframed it. I still felt like I was moving through this world how I wanted to move through it. Encounters still felt like they were challenging while never feeling downright impossible. Indeed, the increased aggressiveness of Bloodborne is balanced by the increased aggressiveness of the player-character. No longer hiding behind a shield and moving forward slowly, you stand with your saw-scythe in one hand and a blunderbuss in the other, chest exposed, as if to say “come and get me”. You no longer block attacks or somersault half the map away but simply take a step to the side. Everything is faster, grizzlier, and more serrated. It’s the same formula and careful, meticulous attention to balancing and atmosphere fed different variables.

But to only talk about combat and challenge is to only capture one small aspect that makes Bloodborne (much like Dark Souls before it) so special. Much more important is the wonderful, wonderful worldbuilding. The city of Yharnam is one of the most memorable locations I have ever visited in a videogame. Remove all the opponents and just let me take a walk through its streets and through the nearby woods and I would be just as pleased. The audacious and baroque architecture is nothing short of magnificent in the way the entire city feels as though it is about to collapse in on itself under its own bloated sense of self-importance. The Nightmare realms that exist autonomous from the ‘main’ world are a disappointing decision in the way they dilute the sense of the world as holistic, but even they in themselves are fascinating and terrifying places to visit.

I love this world. I love just stopping at any point and looking at its spired horizons. More so, the subtle ways that it nightmarishly morphs over the course of the game give what is ultimately an unpopulated space the feeling of being an actual, organic city.

Bloodborne is wonderful for all the ways it is just like Dark Souls, and is all the more wonderful for all the ways it rejects Dark Souls’s tenets and discovers its own identity, its own sense of pacing, and its own sense of place.

1. Super Mario Maker (Nintendo)

Super Mario Maker has long been an enigma to me. Months before it was to be released, I was surprised to realise just how much I was looking forward to it. As I said in my original notes on the game, I don’t feel like I have much of a nostalgic bond to the franchise (or to Nintendo generally, really). Yet, I was really looking forward to both making my own Mario stages, and of playing those of other people. Once the game finally came out, I found myself frustrated at the seemingly obvious design possibilities that the developers had overlooked (and for which more recent updated have provided band-aids, but not solutions). The design of the level editor is almost without fault, but the design of Course World lacks the most basic functionality and works to make it as difficult as possible to foster any sense of community with your existing friends.

Yet, despite this, I have played the game almost daily since its release. I have played somewhere in the vicinity of 500 stages, and made about 50 of my own. Where other ‘make your game’ sort of games such as LittleBigPlanet or even the crafting system of Minecraft fail to encourage me to invest in my own creations, Super Mario Maker has given me the opportunity to just doodle out a level, toss it online, and see what people think. My levels don’t have to be perfect; indeed, the game’s strict dripfeed of unlocked features ensures that I can only make imperfect levels for a while. This helped harness a gradual confidence early on that I would improve but also—and more important for the creative process—an anti-perfectionist ambivalence towards caring about the quality of my works. Here, creating in and of itself was key. Just make something.

And really, this should be the central tenet of any player-creator type game. Players aren’t going to make a game as good as professional game designers; that’s not the point of such games. Player’s are going to make their own, amateur, imperfect, messy levels. That is the point, and that should be encouraged. Super Mario Maker is the first time I’ve felt like that has been encouraged.

The level editor is playful, where using it is ‘playing’ in its own right. It’s a notebook for game design (something Anna Anthropy called for in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters) that lets you, literally with the stylus, to just scribble a bit. My most popular level, Garden Stroll, was created by me scribbling some blocks on the screen then turning that scribble into the terrain for a level. Combine this with the almost ubiquitous knowledge of how different components of the Mario franchise function (Mario’s movement, different coloured koopa troopas, etc.) and you have a very accessible, very welcoming, very easy editor for people to make their own levels (Polygon‘s own Game Of The Year reflection on Super Mario Maker gets into this point in greater detail).

I wish I had this game when I was 10-years-old. You hear the origin stories of different game designers talking about this or that program they had as a kid that first got them into game design. If I had Super Mario Maker as a 10-year-old, I think I would be a game designer telling one of those origin stories. It would have let me get past the hurdle of technical literacy that scared me away from other programs to instead actually play with design itself. I expect in another ten years we will have game designers citing Super Mario Maker as their origin story. Not too many, though, since Nintendo is so terrible at supporting their creations in any meaningful or sustainable manner. The lack of Super Mario Maker on 3DS is, for instance, a hugely disappointing oversight.

Getting past Nintendo’s own desire for their contemporary games and platforms to fade into obscurity has required a very deliberate, very conscious way of engaging with Super Mario Maker’s online ‘Course World’ hub. It has required me to, firstly, to not just skip past levels in the shuffled ‘100 Mario Challenge’ list to save my lives and finish the challenge, but instead to be content with losing the challenge (and twenty-odd lives on a single stage) if it means me growing a better appreciation of that stage. It has required me to go out of my way to, after a 100 Mario Challenge, go to my history tab, find levels I liked, find their creators, and then play more of their levels. It has required me to change how I appreciate levels beyond just being simply fun to rush through. In this, Patrick Klepek’s Mario Maker Mornings and Patricia Hernandez and Danielle Riendeau’s Boo Lab have been invaluable. The latter has introduced me to a range of levels I never would have found, while the former has shown me how to approach playing these levels: not as creations that should be completed in thirty seconds, but which require a good amount of time spent on them to really, truly, appreciate them. This means repeating the same bits over and over again, but even that can be enjoyable if you learn how.

Something that has stuck with me is how Griffin McElroy describes Super Mario Maker in his review for Polygon as a sort of historical ‘making of’ documentary. Whereas classic films get ‘making of’ films, here is a classic game’s ‘making of’ game. In each case, the ‘official’ history is going to be a bit skewed in order to make the original look more favourable. Indeed, having gone back and played Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros 3 since spending a lot of time with Super Mario Maker, I noticed just how much Super Mario Maker has been touched up both visually and in terms of movement. But despite that, this official Nintendo-endorsed historical document about the now 30-year-old franchise has still provided me a deeper, more intimate understanding of a vastly significant cultural entity. Through Super Mario Maker, I have gained not only the confidence to create my own videogame stages and share them with others; I’ve gained a deeper and more intimate appreciation of one of modern videogame’s founding works. Despite all their best efforts to sabotage themselves, Super Mario Maker has achieved for me exactly what Nintendo wanted it to achieve. I get it now. I get why Super Mario is so important.

 

Advertisements