Video games always feel like they’re on the verge of something new. Like the computers and consoles that run them, they seem filled with possibilities that are only half-met in the present. Appropriately, it seemed like many video game dreams were coming true in 2015. Virtual reality came a step closer when Oculus Rift got a release date, Nintendo finally gave fans the keys to its castle with “Super Mario Maker,” and the United Nations invited Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn to speak at a hearing about how games have encouraged the harassment of women online. Rumors of legendary designer Hideo Kojima leaving Konami, after shipping arguably his best game, wound up being true, while young provocateurs like Robert Yang made groundbreaking subversions like “Succulent” and “Stick Shift.” The PlayStation 4 continued to sell faster than any other console in Sony’s history, and hosting services like itch.io helped cultivate an experimental games scene supported by vibrant blogs like Forest Ambassador and Offworld. In short, video games in 2015 were exuberant, despairing, spectacular and spartan, but always close to the edge of new territory. Here’s the best of what video games brought to life for us this year:
The history of art is that of a movement between expression and introspection, creation and criticism. Davey Wreden’s “The Beginner’s Guide” personifies this cycle with its deconstructive take on the art of game design. In the game, Wreden turns himself into a character who tries to interpret and share the work of a reclusive game designer named “Coda.” Over a series of increasingly refined, short, conceptual levels, Wreden demonstrates how fulfilling it can be to move through a virtual space while listening to a sympathetic human voice. This game would make a fine addition to MoMA’s collection.
Space travel is a modern miracle, and “Kerbal Space Program” is a loving testament to how such miracles are made possible. From mastering the complexity of rocket creation to navigating the celestial geometry of transferring from one planet’s orbit to another, “Kerbal” is a nuanced work of awe and grace. It’s a game that skips the punishment and frayed nerves of more traditional game design to create the rare fictional experience that leaves one feeling grateful for the present instead of trying to escape from it.
The new gold standard of the open-world RPG, “The Witcher 3” features some of the most remarkable characters and quests to ever grace a big-budget title. The game’s Polish developer CD Projekt Red gives as much weight to snappy dialogue and quality voice acting as it does to detailed backgrounds and tense monster battles. Assuming you take to the characters and can forgive the game’s ho-hum skill trees, you can easily lose over 100 hours to adventuring, monster slaying, romancing, carousing, sleuthing, sightseeing and card playing in a world where it is not unusual for good deeds to breed disastrous outcomes.
With a title taken from second-wave feminism and a play mechanic that depends on gazing at a woman who may or may not have murdered her husband, “Her Story” rediscovers emotional resonance inside the overburdened cliches of gender politics. Written and designed by Sam Barlow, the game has you searching through dozens of short video clips of a murder suspect being interrogated by police. By obscuring the identity of the person watching, the game slowly dissolves the certainty of its noirish gender cliches and ends with a beautifully pained reconciliation that captures the difference between being watched and being seen.
Racing pulses, coiled tension and bursts of wild movement before finally dropping from the couch to the floor after a strenuous boss battle — no other game provokes physical reactions like “Bloodborne.” This dark, poetic fantasy game is one of the most visually lavish of the year. It’s also a perfect engine for obsession given the strict demands it places on the player and its merciless punishment of mistakes. If you haven’t played a “Souls“ game before but are interested in seeing why From Software is one of the most revered developers in the industry, try it out. It will test your resolve with the patience of a wicked zen master.
A semi-autobiographical memoir that fuses the historical kitsch of computer software with the pained sincerity of teenage love, Nina Freeman’s “Cibele” tells the story of two lonesome teens who fall in love through an online role-playing game. It’s dramatized on a simulated desktop computer with e-mails, photos, old blog posts, instant messages, and in the simple role-playing game the two play together. It’s a portrait of a young woman falling in love in a landscape of anime, games and peer pressure. It’s also an amazingly sorrowful depiction of a boy trying to overperform his masculinity — simultaneously full of braggadocio and frozen with insecurity, jumping to say “I love you,” and then rushing to find the exit as soon as things get too real.
A taut sci-fi mystery about what makes us human, “SOMA” speculates about what might happen if people could upload their consciousness onto machines. The game’s combination of puzzle solving, environmental exploration and philosophical storytelling creates a harmonious piece of digital architecture. If you’re looking for an adventure game with big ideas and a searing ending that will stay with you long past the credits, look no further.
Designed as a hobby project by Jesse Barksdale and released for free, “The Static Speaks My Name” tells the story of an insomniac obsessed with a reverse engineering a painting and decoding the secret behind its creation. It’s cynical and sarcastic, yet joyfully self-aware that its caricature of interpretative exploitation is equally ungenerous and severe. It’s a 10-minute micro-narrative that’s content to roughly sketch out its ideas in order to avoid killing them by pinning them into perfect place. It works as a tense thriller and a joyful assertion of an imagination that does not have to care about what other people think.
Strange as it may seem, Nintendo did the most to revamp the shooter genre this year by substituting bullets for paint. As an Inkling in either the single or multiplayer modes, you shoot, run, splash and dive through vibrant colors transforming back and forth between a paint-slinging kid and a paint-swimming squid. Ignore the vapid writing and the overly similar enemies in the single-player and instead bask in one of the most exuberant, competitive multiplayer experiences around.
Most games depict political revolutions over the barrel of a gun. “Sunset” uses a broom instead. Developed by Belgian net artists Tale of Tales, the game casts players as a house cleaner working for a rich artist in a fictional South American country on the verge of revolution. It sways from meditative voyeurism to startling shows of warfare, capturing the helpless sense of being trapped in a historical moment that’s indifferent to your place in it. One moment, you’re listening to someone else’s records while you dust; the next, a military helicopter appears in a window like a ballistic mosquito. Though the plot sometimes meanders into melodrama, it manages to capture war and wage labor as alienating intrusions that one can only hope to outlast.