1) Her Story (Sam Barlow)
Using an outdated computer interface, Her Story
tells a crime tale using snippets of several police interviews. The only way to access those video files is to search the transcripts and watch them individually. The speed at which you unravel the twisted yarn depends on your acumen at separating the important facts from the red herrings. Are you the note-taking, deliberate type or more of a brute force player, searching random terms hoping to stumble upon a juicy detail? As the plot thickens, it becomes increasingly difficult not to exhaustively search out every moment of Viva Seifert's performance. The game probes the onscreen drama and the player's mind as it searches for truth. It was the one game I played in one sitting, and not because it was short, but because I always thought the next word I searched was going to bust the mystery wide open. Which it sometimes did while also revealing a deeper mystery.
2) Undertale (Toby Fox)
The role-playing genre is rife with rules, and no game dismissed them like Undertale
this year. It defies tropes with a young, female protagonist, a bullet-hell battle system, and an ability to finish the game without killing anything. From the moment an innocent-looking flower grows fangs and attacks, it's clear the interactions are going to defy usual game logic. So what kind of RPG is it? A great one.
3) Rocket League (Psyonix)
The year's biggest success story was also the best multiplayer game. The premise couldn't be simpler: soccer played with cars. It takes time to master (who would have guessed a car wasn't designed for sports?), but the genius of the game is that learning is as enjoyable as mastery. The pros can do flips in the air that make bicycle-kicked goals look tame, but seeing a rookie back into a ball by mistake and score the winning point is equally rewarding.
4) Downwell (Moppin)
before it, once you think you understand every procedurally generated possibility the game can create, it surprises you with a new combo of baddies and obstacles to make you throw your phone or computer across the room. But you'll also pray it's intact, so you can try again ... and again ... and again. You won't master it until you can almost read the mind of the game's designer.
5) Super Mario Maker (Nintendo)
I'm sorry, is this heaven? Did Nintendo really hand over the tools from decades of Mario games to the hoi polloi? Yes, and it's as much fun and eye opening as you'd expect. Want to turn the tables on the plumbers by packing a level with thousands of the series' most squashable mushrooms? Done. It's also a telling look into game design (it's hard!) and the mind of Shigeru Miyamoto (it's weird!).
6) The Beginner's Guide (Everything Unlimited Ltd.)
Local developer Davey Wreden decided to double down on meta-commentary with his follow-up to The Stanley Parable
. What starts out as a trip through a fellow developer's video games – curated by Wreden himself – quickly goes down one rabbit hole after another until it's impossible to know what's truth, what's fiction, who's real, and who's playing a character. I've never thought I knew where a game was going as many times as The Beginner's Guide
, and I'm still questioning my conclusions.
7) Strawberry Cubes (Loren Schmidt)
Loren Schmidt said that Strawberry Cubes
was an attempt to express the feelings he had as he lost his grandmother to dementia. The emphasis here should be on "feelings." The inscrutable but evocative gameplay offers players little to grab on to as each screen disintegrates before your eyes. The game doesn't say much, but the emotions expressed through design are palpable.
8) Splatoon (Nintendo)
It's amazing that it took this long for Nintendo to realize they can make a multiplayer shooter without abandoning their family-friendly image. Replace the bullets with paint and crank up the cute factor – not to mention the addition of surprisingly innovative tweaks to the genre – and let your kids shoot at their leisure.
9) Panoramical (Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga)
Audio/visual experimentalists Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga join forces to make a feast for the eyes and ears. Each "level" has nine controls that operate on X and Y axes. That makes for a delightful analog experience that reveals its joys quickly and its nuances gradually. Find that sweet spot of light, color, and sound, or keep searching for that perfect tone. It's in there.
10) Fallout 4 (Bethesda); Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (Kojima Productions); The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt RED); Bloodborne (FromSoftware)
Yes, I'm cheating here, but all of the year's blockbuster titles were too big to fail. Lumping these games together is not to say they are similar, although none of them will be remembered for their innovation. That said, if you couldn't find something fun to do in the massive worlds they created, you weren't trying.