MGS V is a weird case. The gameplay is certainly more my speed than most of the games past, my undying love for Revengeance notwithstanding. The plot is a mess, and yet, the execution of all of it is so very left of center and esoteric, I'm still baffled it inspires the loyalty it does. I remain unsure whether I actually like MGS V, but I am utterly fascinated by every tiny bizarre decision it makes.
In all honesty, though, the real reason all three don't make the cut is because they're too goddamn long, and for any of them to make it, I would literally have to not play or watch anything else until I'm done. Which I always suppose is the design ethos behind most open world games, and it's an untenable one unless all 30+ hours of it are all killer, no filler. And AAA open world games THRIVE on filler. More power to you if that's what you want--looking right the hell at you, Fallout 4--but as time goes on, if I'm offered a quest or a task or an activity in the game, and the game doesn't offer an adequate answer when I ask "but...WHY?", my interest tanks. That's less the case for the three I mentioned, but, still. Time is short. Make it worth it.
And having just said that, the bottom three of my top 10 are two open world games and an MMO.
10/9/8: Assassin's Creed Syndicate/Destiny: The Taken King/Batman: Arkham Knight
In fairness, all three also fulfill another criteria, which is "series I'd written off managing to surprise the living hell out of me again". Syndicate completely redeems the Unity clusterfuck, and offers the first straight up Assassin's Creed game to achieve greatness since Brotherhood*. Jacob and Evie are well-realized, enjoyable companions, the side activities to liberate London feel urgent, and consistently fun, and God, the mystery portal is one of my favorite things to happen in video games this year.
Arkham Knight isn't perfect--the actual identity of the Arkham Knight is some slapdash bullshit, the Batmobile sections get real tired real fast--but what it gets right, it gets ridiculously right. It's the first of these games to not just feel like I'm going from mission to mission, but like Gotham is a very real place, currently overrun by villains, and it's my job to clean it up. What elevates it from good to great is that you're basically doing it as a Batman with a terminal illness. The Bat's trademark grumpiness makes total sense in context that what Batman's about to become will most certainly kill everyone. And sorry folks, statute of limitations is over, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE JOKER. Because even though I was initially so very pissed they ruined the perfect send-off Hamill's Joker got in Arkham City, Rocksteady may have given Hamill his best iteration of that son of a bitch yet: a bitter, taunting specter that Batman CANT punch into submission, knows all of his worst secrets, who can take over his every faculty at any time, and whose victory is damn near assured. The Joker, in this game, is a living embodiment of a terminal disease. And that's terrifying as fuck. That journey was amazing to take.
And, of course, there's Destiny. I was actually pretty soft on the game when it first released, but the bloom fell off that rose within a few months. Destiny had revealed itself to be everything terrible about MMOs, strangling to death the ambitious FPS project Bungie had built it all around. It felt less like a game, more like a job you have to keep going back to, praying one day there'll be a Christmas bonus. Later, of course, I'd find out that, basically, Year One Destiny was, in essence, an extended Beta. The Taken King, however, is the real goddamn deal.
Quite simply, the new content is spectacular, fulfilling all the hype Bungie threw at us in the leadup next year. The galaxy feels like it has a legitimately frightening threat in the Taken. Even as reskins of the original enemies, the new abilities basically make tangling with them a whole new ballgame. Oryx himself is a fascinating villain (more fascinating after you read the Books of Sorrow, which is one of the coolest bits of game lore ever), and the people fighting him have never felt more like an ensemble cast than they do now. The MMO cycle is still here, but at the bare minimum, when you repeat quests now, the rewards are tangible. Everything you can do in Destiny has a purpose, and the results are immediate. But it helps that the new content is so well crafted, utilizing all the vast talent and resources on hand--how we went a year without the game utilizing Nathan Fillion to his fullest boggles the mind--and creating a world that feels welcoming rather than obligatory. Destiny is just fun to play now. Even when I leave it alone for an extended period, I find myself excited to do something, ANYTHING, even if its just fucking around with the Racing League for a few minutes.
The binding thread here is that all three games manage that miracle of making even the tiniest filler tasks into something I WANT to do, and there's narratively satisfying reasons to do them. By comparison, I had to review Just Cause 3 for Slant, and despite a holy legion of stuff to do, I didn't give two squirts about being there or doing any of it beyond the initial "oh sweet, explosions" cackling. That game was just useless to me as a result. But, apparently, I'm alone on that.
*--Case you're wondering: Revelations was just okay, Black Flag feels so unlike Assassin's Creed it might as well be it's own separate pirate game + wristshanks. Rogue was real damn good, but still flawed in ways Syndicate isn't. Also, you have to kill Adewale in it, and that just made me want to kick something.
7: Her Story
I would still love to know how and why we got to this place where the industry decided FMVs needed to come back, but I had a Sega CD, and I've had my fill. (doesn't help that I thought Guitar Hero Live was poop aside from the new guitar, but, once again, I'm alone on that.)
Her Story, however, was a godsend in showing that there's still wonderful things to be done with the format, even though it's just real footage, chopped into bite sizes, and cordoned off by the in-game search engine. Putting the pieces of a life together using little more than human curiosity is just simple brilliance, and the story told, and the revelations therein are so very well played, in no small part because Viva Siefert's performance is just utterly fearless in where she gets to go, with just a simple lilt, or fidget, causing just enough distrust and disquiet in the player to have them question everything. If you could pair a movie up with a game, wine/meat/cheese style, this would make a devastating companion piece with Dear Zachary. Followed, of course, by maybe a couple months of therapy.
6: Ori and the Blind Forest
While we've still got an officially sanctioned Studio Ghibli game in the form of Ni No Kuni, if you could pretend that game doesn't exist, and were told to envision a Studio Ghibli video game, this is probably much closer to that vision than Ni No Kuni is. That gentle beauty, attention to tiny details, and the pure unabashed emotion Miyazaki has never been afraid of? Theyre all here, especially in that opener, which is basically out to pull a Mola Ram on the player's heart before they even learn where the jump button is.
Thing is, you think, going in, it's going to be that usual Limbo situation, of simple puzzles meant to place softball obstacles in the way of you and the narrative. And then you get an hour in and realize, the game is not letting you off that fucking easy. The game, while beautiful, is also hard as a son of a bitch in spots, and even with some very cool, very well implemented special abilities for traversal--the Bash ability, where you can ricochet yourself off enemies and projectiles, is particularly great--the game can and will kick your ass. I love the game for its emotion. I grudgingly honor the game for its lack of compromise. That ending, as nakedly warm and fuzzy as it is, is earned. This is probably the best platformer I've played since Rayman Legends.
5: Everybody's Gone To The Rapture
The industry's in desperate need for a name for this kind of game. "Walking simulator" is bullshit. "Interactive novel" is closer to the mark, but that hews closer to a sort of structure this kind of game tends to ignore till closer to the end. "Ludonarrative" is scientifically accurate, but pretentious in every day conversation. We'll need to figure this out too, because there's a lot more of these coming, and when they're as good as this one, not having the shorthand words to explain why is gonna hurt.
And yes, this one's great. What I thought was going to be a straight up Left Behind piecing-together-the-apocalypse kind of story is so much more human. There's a scientist trying to filter the terrifying phenomenon fading friends and loved ones out of existence through the lens of physics and astronomy. Even then, the dedication to figuring out the puzzle is little more than metaphor for the very real isolation and reclusivity stemming from being both black and American in a very white, excruciatingly British village. For everyone else, though, it's a matter of very simple people living rote, tiny lives suddenly faced with the impossible and divine, and we witness their coping process through the ghosts of their happiest, saddest, most heated moments. As slow as the game moves--and yes, I knew about the dash button, and no it didn't help THAT much--it moved with the pace of all the best novels: just fast enough to realize just how much more I wanted to see and hear of it, especially with the close of each chapter ending as heartbreaking and existential as they do.
4. The Beginner's Guide
I am well aware of the fact that, by even writing about The Beginner's Guide, I am complicit in the emotional crime at its center. I am also aware that even trying to explain The Beginner's Guide is to make the same mistake as its narrator. It's basically The Game brought to elaborate, emotional life. If you've thought about saying something about it, you've lost.
There's a lot of folks who read The Beginner's Guide as a fairly real representation of the internal pains of game dev, and of course, that's the text of the thing, but it's equally giving the sideye to critics, those who would attach an objective, likely monetary value onto something both priceless and personal. And such is the danger of art, and much of the horror of Beginner's Guide, besides the dadaist mishmash of ideas in each of Coda's games, is realizing how much that external noise strangles art. No one's innocent when it comes to having to create art, least of all the artist. The game does amazing work expressing that in solid terms.
Every problem I have ever expressed about multiplayer shooters, Splatoon fixes. Other people are dicks when shrouded behind anonymity? No voice chat. Game is inaccessible unless you spend hours every day playing it? Make game modes where literally, you can be off in a corner, making sure one little corner of the map stays covered in ink, using one of the enjoyable slates of weaponry in years, and you're contributing. Tired of playing as grizzly, battle-hardened soldiers? Here's a game where male and female pre-teens hat can turn into squids shoot each other with ink-filled supersoakers. Thats saying nothing of the amazing sea creature puns, the fact that your referee is a barely mobile fat cat with a bowtie, a steady, FREE stream of new content, constant community battles, and core gameplay that absolutely refuses to get old, ever. Splatoon is the most joyous multiplayer game this generation, and I've probably put more late night hours into it than any game this year, Destiny included, and objectively, Destiny has more content. It's simply everything I've wanted to get out of a multiplayer game, and thought I never would.
2: Life Is Strange
One of the great, still barely tapped superpowers of this medium is putting a player into the shoes of someone far removed from their own experience. Overwhelmingly, that's grizzly white guys with guns (and gosh, I have spent a lot of this beating up on grizzly white guys, haven't I?), so when a game like Life Is Strange comes along, inviting players to step into the shoes of a very, very normal teenage girl, it's already special by default.
Thing is, the proxy is unique for games, but the central conceit that carries the game is not: Give a teenager hindsight as a superpower. Give a teenager the ability to know exactly what needs to be said, what certain people need to hear at a given moment, know what the consequences of your exceedingly stupid teenage actions will be and, biggest of all, be able to know how to keep a loved one from leaving. Would that make life ANY better than what it is? The answer, of course, is no. It's still complicated, and frustrating, and scary, and heartbreaking, just differently so.
Beyond the really great alternate reality stuff that horns in on the narrative from Episode 3 onward, what ultimately stuns me about Life Is Strange is how it emphasizes empathy and love as solutions instead of any concrete weapon Max could possibly wield. Ultimately, caring about other people and letting them know it is the only weapon Max has, and even then, the cold realization that it still can't stop some things from happening is a hard lesson, but probably the one that will lead to the development of Max Caulfield the full grown adult than any diploma she'll get from Blackwell. Granted, it doesn't make the best, narratively satisfying ending any less painful and sad for the rest of us, but still. With this, DONTNOD solidify that Remember Me was no fluke, they really are some of my favorite folks making games right now....
1: Tales From The Borderlands
....right behind these guys.
Technically, I guess this also falls in the category of series I'd written off. I tried to give Borderlands 2 a fair shake via the Handsome Collection before I tackled this, spent 12 hours with in, and promptly sold it back. A few of the characters are memorable, when it's not being full of mildly-self-aware cliche FPS banter. It's occasionally even funny, with a fairly diverse cast even. Still, the Pandora of the original series is such a malignant, ugly place. The idea of getting rich to live in it meant nothing, and the MMO-inspired cycle of just collecting better guns ad nauseum did nothing for me. What I needed from Borderlands was a reason to care, something worth shooting and looting for beyond the repetitive love of shooting and looting, because neither in this series was good enough to care.
Turns out, both Rhys and Fiona have the same problem. What they find, ultimately, is a family. The main thread of Tales from the Borderlands is ultimately what a family unit looks like in the most fucked up place in the galaxy. And it's a wonderful thing to witness.
it's a wild balance Telltale has to strike here. They don't water down how terrifying of a place Pandora is, but they also know how to spin that into something greater than just blood and misery for its own, cynical sake. This is a game where somehow, they managed to make the concept of "skin pizza" simultaneously horrifying and gut-laugh worthy. The dialogue sings in a way most video games don't, even by Telltale's standards. The opening credit needledrops are perfect in a way words can't express, and again, Telltale's not new to that game either.
Not only is the game consistently hilarious, not only does it twist many of the original series' best elements into something better, not only does it have some of the best plotted action scenes in any medium this year (and yes, I'm well aware this was the year Fury Road happened) but from the second Gortys shows up to galvanize the cast into a zany caravan, it somehow manages to magically become one of the most genuinely earnest expressions of warmth in a narrative this year. The cherry on top is that this turned out to be the game to get Telltale to shake things up and bring more God's honest gameplay to their typical "choose your own adventure" style. It's not as extensive or dynamic as, say, Until Dawn, but it also doesn't have to be.
It's one of those rare games that comes along where I've spent decent time looking for something wrong and failing. Short of maybe how low key much of the first two episodes are, I can't think of anything. Moreover, it's the first Telltale game I've almost instantly wanted to go back to, and can see myself going back to in the years to come, just to visit these characters again. Is there really any greater mark of a fantastic game than having created a place that, even though you can get shot, stabbed, poisoned, blown up, or worse, you still want to go back just to hang out a while?
And now, for posterity's sake, here's a bunch of games that didn't make it, but I like 'em:
Super Mario Maker
Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines
Portal Stories: Mel
Mortal Kombat X
And so ends 2015.