Once again, the voting for Unwinnable’s Game of the Year was downright weird. Folks nominated AAA open world blockbusters, interactive fiction, unfinished Early Access games, a Twine, big studio games, little indies, big indies, games about sex, games about dancing – a couple people even voted for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, if you can believe it.
The lesson here is that every year, there are more games available for more tastes than ever before. And that means lists like this are less about trying to definitively select “the best,” whatever that is, and more about helping broaden tastes. Hopefully, you’ll find a game on this list that you didn’t play, that you never even heard of, and our words will inspire you to try it.
– Stu Horvath
Runner-Up: Most Style: Crypt of the NecroDancer
Between Sunless Sea, Invisible Inc. and Crypt of the NecroDancer, 2015 was a dang good year for Procedural Death Labyrinths. Yet while I love all three of those games, Crypt is hands-down the coolest thing videogames have done in years, partly because it’s so dang focused on what it wants to do. Everything fits together and enhances the game’s overwhelming sense of style: everything that you and the funky monsters you fight must do is bound to the beat of Danny Baranowsky’s fan-freaking-tastic soundtrack. The whole game is a dance with different choreography depending on the weapons you pick up and the monsters you boogie past, and it’s all wrapped up in one perfect whole, everything connected to everything else. Skeletons throw their hands up in the air before they move towards you. The shopkeeper sings along with the soundtrack. In the boss fight against King Conga, you can’t move on the eighth beat, or you’ll throw off his conga line and he’ll punish you accordingly.
You can keep your messy, open-world, apocalyptic wastelands and preposterous photosynthetic snipers. I want more games like Crypt of the NecroDancer: smaller, focused, polished and perfect.
– William Coberly
Best Emergent Emergencies – Invisible Inc.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the XCOM reboot of 2012, particularly its Ironman mode and the way it forces you to live with your mistakes. Yet with campaigns that can last dozens of hours, it’s simply not feasible for a reasonable adult to keep starting new XCOM runs and play them to completion, or even the point where they get interesting.
Lucky for me, Invisible Inc. provides the same kind of turn-based tactical joy while doubling down on XCOM’s roguelike aspirations with shorter and more varied playthroughs. Where XCOM deals in the frustration and elation of sure shots going wide and desperate attempts hitting the mark, Invisible Inc.’s stealth system generally relies on predictable outcomes, making it feel more like a game of chess than a dice-rolling session.
The game is at its most interesting when it is just on the brink of overwhelming you, and its slowly escalating difficulty is fantastic at taking you to that point. The longer you stay in a particular mission, the more guards are going to arrive and you’ll slowly have to keep more and more balls in the air (which is to say pinned to the ground) before they all come crashing down on you.
– Joe Koller
One of the defining features of Bethesda’s sprawling RPGs is that they’re kinda janky. If you took the processes, the virtual machinery, it takes to simulate Fallout 4 and built them with actual nuts and bolts you’d get an enormous wunderkabinett with the complexity of a hundred space shuttles. When you stepped up to that box, you’d consider it a miracle that the thing worked at all.
So part of what makes Fallout 4 fascinating is the way it recalibrates expectations. In exchange for the miracle of a vast wasteland full of friends, foes and billions of bottle caps to scrounge (or not) the true wasteland freak comes to accept the more than occasional catastrophic o-ring failure, the frozen console or crash to desktop. With that enlightenment they accept a new definition of progress and scoff at the notion that it can be lost. And mostly they revel in the parts of the game that feel broken, but aren’t – the one-shot bullets that rip enemies to shreds, the armor that soaks up bullets like a thirsty Brahman and the decades old packaged food that miraculously heals mortal wounds.
Fallout 3, of course, was much jankier. And, granted, it’s nice to have some of those bumps ironed out. Just not too many of them. If it ain’t broke…
– Gus Mastrapa
Best Haunting, Beautiful Sense of Despair: Sunless Sea
I sailed across the Unterzee back to Fallen London with a hold full of clay men and crates of human souls, barely drifting into port, my crew hungry and my engines running on fumes. As our steamship ambled past the Wolfstack Docks, my zailors lingered at the rail, and I listened to the familiar chords of the tune that welcomes me home from another dangerous, beautiful, voyage out into the Sunless Sea.
I regaled my sweetheart and my child with my adventures, all of a consistent tone: dark, haunting, dreamlike, strange, whimsical but never slapstick. I told my child of the Fathomking’s Hold, of the Iron Republic, of the vast ice-fortress Frostfound. I recounted encounters with strange jellyfish and clouds of zee-bats, and as I spoke, I saw my child’s eyes light up with wonder and longing. I felt a mixture of pride and terror as I realized that on the day when I fail to return to Fallen London, when I inevitably venture too far and succumb to the Unterzee’s terrors, my child will claim some shred of my belongings and set out to zee, seeking adventure, fortune, or just a resting place for my bones.
– William Coberly
The Best Game to Reaffirm Your Notions that You Were a Great Designer All Along, or Confirm that You’re Terrible at Game Design but You’ll Have a Lot of Fun and Please Play It It’s Awesome Award: Super Mario Maker
Super Mario Maker is the essence of what videogames are.
That might sound weird in a year that ran the gamut between multiple high budget open world adventures, contrastingly tiny independent games about feelings and, of course, the invention of a new totally legitimate sport of turbo infused low gravity trucks playing soccer game Rocket League.
Even still Super Mario Maker taps into the magic that is videogames; these arcane things that are a couple parts technology and many more parts interlocking creativity with a lot of unseen polish tying them together that have captivated millions of humans across the globe for decades.
Nintendo has offered up a toy box filled to the brim with almost everything you could want, with some extras that no one knew could exist, wrapped in a tool that easily conveys a breadth of information, allowing players to quickly play and test their creation, re-wrap it in new graphic and play styles and, eventually, share it. Through this, Nintendo has crafted something that easily outranks even the seemingly more forward thinking games like Little Big Planet, because all of the basics of Mario, like control and feel, are inherently much better.
In the age where games are taking more control away on the large scale, and creation is becoming more and more of an option, through the streamlining of engines and the openness of platforms, Nintendo has managed to create a game building package that stands up, holds its hands out and says “Create.”
– Shawn Alexander Allen
Best Game for Compulsive Note Taking: Her Story
There’s a veneer of absolute objectivity in Her Story. There’s one face and one voice. One victim and one investigation, date and time marked to the second, with every word transcribed and indexed, including “and” and “the.”
But there is never really just one voice. None of our stories is ever completely consistent.
So you’ll start taking notes. When was the car in Glasgow? What outfit corresponds with which day? When did she ask for coffee and when did she ask for tea? When were the storybook illustrations brought to the table? What keywords might prompt the database to give you a few new videos? What questions might bring you a little closer to the truth?
And when you finally find the story you’ve been looking for, the one that lies at the end of the trail of breadcrumbs, what do you do with all those notes? What do they really tell you? How much can you objectively know? How much is guesswork? How much is her story, and how much is yours?
– Gavin Craig
Best “What is It?”: The Beginner’s Guide
What? You’ve never played The Beginner’s Guide? Gosh, you really should.
Look, I need to let you know about this game. It starts off as this fascinating tour through the catalog of a designer, an exploration into how much of ourselves we put into our creations.
The guiding voice in The Beginner’s Guide can be a little pedantic in the way it explains everything to you, but hang in there… that’s part of the point. This game isn’t what you think it is… or it’s exactly what you thought it was, but had become convinced it wasn’t.
Anyway, that doesn’t matter. Abandon those expectations entirely and just experience this thing for what it is. What is it? I don’t know… exactly.
But I’ll guess. It’s a cry for help masquerading as a different kind of cry for help. Or maybe it’s a hate-letter creator David Wredon has written to himself, or to his audience, or maybe to me?
Anyway, it doesn’t matter. You have to check out this game. Trust me. You’ll thank me for it.
I need you to play it. You’ll love me for it.
Don’t take this away from me. Play it. I need this.
Is my blurb okay? I wonder if David will like it.
– Richard Clark
Biggest Emotional Swings of 2015: Undertale
After winning the title of Best Game Ever over at GameFAQs (much to the chagrin of some of the community members there), our little award seems like so much faint praise. But we would be remiss to let the end of the year pass without recognizing this bizarre little indie gem.
I’ve written elsewhere here on Unwinnable about the game’s wittiness, its sense of self-awareness, and its persistent memory that lasts in spite of your ability to reload and start over at the beginning of the story. But at its core, the most important aspect of the game, the one that makes it a standout in a year full of standouts, is its heart. Undertale will make you fall in love with its unique and colorful characters. It will make you regret poor decisions, make you yearn to redeem yourself through the magic of save scumming and replays. It will haunt you with reminders of your failures even after you go back and make things right. It will damn you if you choose to prioritize your own curiosity over the virtual lives you control. And it will give you hope, both for the future of the games industry and for humanity as a whole.
– Meg Condis
I like Downwell because I like roguelikes. I like roguelikes because I can fail at them quickly, in manageable chunks that slot easily into my day. Ten minutes here, a two minute run there – roguelikes are the bite-sized, pre-packaged failure for a busy person on the go.
Downwell is one long tumble of failure for me. I’ve tried every tactic – going for combos, avoiding combos in favor of methodical descend, simply avoiding enemies altogether – and have never made it past the first level of the catacombs. But I keep coming back to it anyway, turning small sojourns into its depths into days of play time. The game is frantic but visually simple, giving you everything you need to succeed. I’ve never ended a run without knowing exactly why I failed, without being determined to do better. Downwell is eminently fair, breathtakingly comprehensible – and utterly impossible.
I never do better, but I don’t mind. Its fast pace and simple controls mean I’m always seduced by the allure of “one more run,” of the possibility of doing it right this time. OK, probably not this time, but definitely the next. Or the next. Maybe.
– Riley MacLeod
Broken Controller Game of the Year: Rocket League
Rocket League is one of the most frustrating, diabolically unfair and, dare I say, humiliating games I’ve ever played. When your timing is off and you whiff on an easy cross, when you go airborne and miss the ball by a country mile, when your teammates crash into you and bump you out of a sure fire goal or save – these are the times when Rocket League is surely the work of the devil. And yet, for all that, Rocket League is easily the best sports game of the year, if not all time. When Rocket League clicks, when you win a game on a last second aerial goal, when you make an impossible save with the ball breaching your goal line – no other game in 2015 comes close to replicating the feeling of competitive glory Rocket League offers. Finely tuned and impeccably paced, Rocket League deserves every bit of praise that can be heaped onto it.
– Dave Andrews
Game of the Year: Witcher 3
Geralt of Rivia is the greatest videogame character I have encountered. I hazard to say he is the greatest videogame character ever and one whose greatness owes much to being a videogame character. Witcher 3 offers a range of responses for Geralt for any given situation that sidesteps the good/evil binary in favor of more ambiguous attitudes like cynicism, grudging optimism, kindness and hatred. No matter what his responses, Geralt always remains intrinsically Geralt, even though your Geralt is probably very different from my Geralt. It is downright magical.
Geralt lives and breathes in a way I have difficulty expressing. I can use all the soaring language in the world, but the truth is, you have to play Witcher 3 and experience it to really understand, which is a rare thing for any media.
And if the monumental accomplishment of creating Geralt were the only noteworthy thing in Witcher 3, it would still be worthy of being called the game of the year, but in truth, there is so much more: the other characters – even minor ones! – that are drawn with as detailed a brush as Geralt; the huge, beautiful world; the elaborate but emotionally grounded story.
There’s the complicated politics, too, and the focus on the effects of war on regular people is surprisingly nuanced and thoughtful, especially in the context of a videogame, where war is most often equated with playtime.
There’s luscious design work, of course.
And how could I forget the bizarre monsters and the need to prepare and adapt to effectively defeat them?
– Stu Horvath