designerzord

By Sam Rosenthal

My Favorite Games of 2015

 

Every so often, usually after a year or two of incremental progress, video game players are gifted with a year of near constant experimentation.

In 2007, we were introduced to BioShock, Mass Effect, and Portal, three would-be frameworks for interactive storytelling, while Super Mario Galaxy and Rock Band offered surprising twists on genre stalwarts.

In 2010, Heavy Rain laid a foundation for the modern adventure game, Limbo reimagined the 2D platformer as a haunting meditation on death, and Red Dead Redemption traded a satirical city for a lyrical frontier.

In 2012, The Walking Dead continued Heavy Rain’s exploration of choice and consequence, while Journey stripped down online play to its bare fundamentals in a beautifully realized parable of life and mortality.

Our landmark games often arrive when game design catches technological advancement at just the right moment. Whether the technology comes in the form of consoles, peripherals, chipsets, game engines, or distribution platforms, these rare moments of intersection can birth multiple breakthroughs at once.

2015 was a year for experiments and breakthroughs across the medium. Some demonstrated novel blends of storytelling and interaction, while others offered their purest expression of iterative game design. The four below (in no particular order) inspired me the most:

 

Her Story

While storytelling mediums are usually more equipped to handle the mundane than the supernatural, video games have the inverse problem. Her Story’s novel solution molds the power to enter search queries, a real-world super power we have come to know well, into its primary interaction.

Searching for truth leads you to doors in the form of proper nouns: names and locations that inch you toward its murder mystery’s elusive center. The plot intricacies (the subject of numerous online discussions) ultimately play second fiddle to the sensation of unearthing them.

First comes a shot of euphoria, but a hint of dread trails closely behind. You already know what she will say next. Truth is a powerful motivator until it confirms your unpleasant suspicions.

 

Bloodborne

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Like Her Story, Bloodborne’s lasting impression stems from juxtaposing emotions. From Software first served its concoction of awe and terror in 2009’s Demon’s Souls, but this year’s brew is by far their sharpest.

Bloodborne and its predecessors are known for their brutal difficulty, but I wish they were known for the immense trust they place in their players. Time and time again, I hear players describe how their favorite games let them “get lost in a world.” The feeling of getting lost cannot be reclaimed through iconic imagery or familiar music. Somewhere along the road, the game designer has to remove the sign.

Although Bloodborne includes a leveling system and weapon upgrades, meaningful progress is always paired with new knowledge of its world. As is the case in real life, knowledge can only be obtained through willful steps into the unknown. Sometimes those steps take you off the edge of a cliff, other times they reveal a familiar path. The world may be merciless, yet it’s never as vast or as impossible as it seems.

 

Rocket League

A game about playing soccer with cars somehow feels more like playing a sport than any of its hyper-realistic peers. Even its learning process is eerily accurate. I slowly built up a false sense of confidence, only for it to be utterly destroyed after playing someone with experience.

Rocket League draws you in with a small economy of mechanics that work together brilliantly. Boosts launch you toward the other side of the field or into the air for a well-placed header. The tricky physics make for an impossibly high skill ceiling and a terrific e-sport for the competitive crowd. Unlike most games turned e-sports, the appeal of this one is immediately obvious without an 80-hour preamble.

While best enjoyed with a friend, Rocket League’s online experience is friendly and positive, smartly favoring preset chat entries over voice communication. Occasionally when I give up a goal, I’m greeted with a sarcastic, “What a save!”

I'll take that over what I hear when playing real sports any day.

 

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

The Chinese Room’s latest title builds upon their own Dear Esther, stripping out traditional game mechanics to encourage observation and introspection. Rapture is a profound marriage of people and place. Objects that would appear as mere background dressing in other games become the foundation for memories to take shape. A bench does not just represent the physical object, but the beginning of a candid conversation.

Silhouettes of light and well-acted voices give form to the cast, which is never present on screen. Even if this decision is mostly economical, it provides a sense of before and after in a single place, alongside a visual representation of the central theme.

The light we cast transcends our death.

Follow the light to be treated to a well-told story accompanied by one of the finest musical scores in video games. Linger in the shadows and the game’s beautifully detailed props and signage take center stage. This place illuminates its people.

Fictional Guns

Although first person shooters are often heralded for their twitch controls, I remember my dad’s hands twitching more than mine when he watched me play 007: Nightfire. After I howled in celebration of a clutch kill one night, he gently revealed what was on his mind:

I know you play these games just for fun, but I just wanted to remind you that guns are real and people die from them every day. I’m not trying to ruin your enjoyment, but please don’t forget that.

The lesson didn’t sink in for a long time. As a kid, guns were no more real to me than the polygonal weaponry I controlled on screen. Today they are much less abstract. When I scroll through my Twitter feed, I am sure to find the latest gun-related atrocity sandwiched between selfies and sports updates. We often fear becoming desensitized to violence because of media overexposure, but this constant reminder of real world violence has in fact resensitized me to its fictional representation.

My iPhone buzzed with news of a mass shooting as I entered the theater to watch the latest 007 flick (apparently still a fan), and the Hollywood gun battles that I used to find exhilerating turned out to be difficult to sit through. I thought about buying Fallout 4 this week, but while watching a gameplay video featuring slow motion headshots next to my Twitter feed announcing yet another shooting, it suddenly seemed much less appealing. I remembered the way my friend’s older sister sighed when she watched him play Call of Duty.

Oh, that killing game.

Reviews of the military shooter focused on barely perceptible visual improvements and minute changes to its rules. Those four words rang louder than all of them.

I am not suggesting that it is impossible to enjoy violent media as escapism, that you should avoid it entirely, or that it has a direct influence on real world actions. However, the less ignorant we become about the world around us, the more my dad’s lesson rings true. When considering a fantasy for entertainment, it’s worth remembering the reality.