2015 has been an incredible year for game releases, and a terrible year for my free time. This is both because life is a Sisyphean list of chores that keeps growing until a little bit after you die, and because 2015 saw a glut of what of I like to call monogamous games.
Broadly speaking, these are games that are so much fun to get lost in for hours at a time, and that take many more hours to experience fully, that you could play them exclusively for months, even years. 2015 was filled with monogamous games, and realistically there's only so many of them I could play.
For this reason, Motherboard's best games of the year list was put together with the highly scientific method of me listing all the games I played this year in a notepad document, then arranging them from my least favorite to my most favorite.
These are the top eight, and it's an odd list! You'll notice its best half is loaded with those monogamous games, but there are a few smaller ones, and hopefully some you forgot about and didn't even know released this year. They're all amazing, and probably on sale during Steam's current, big holiday sale.
Go get them.
8. Ori and the Blind Forest
It's a great take on the 2D Metroid formula of exploring a world that opens up further as you get new abilities, only by way of charming, Hayao Miyazaki-like animation. That's a great combo, and it's also one of only two games on this list that doesn't take half a lifetime to enjoy, so no reason not to try it out.
7. Prison Architect
After three years in beta, the prison management game Prison Architect finally launched this year. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely.
Prison Architect is fun in all the ways Sim City is fun. You optimize cash flow and invest in new projects in order to make even more money. You obsess over details, so your business isn't only profitable, but aesthetically pleasing and convenient to manage.
The difference is that with Prison Architect, you're most likely ruining a bunch of lives in the process. It's a vicious lesson in what happens when you run a correctional facility as a prison, but it only works as a game because of how well the simulation is executed. Every brick matters. Every pipe has to fit in order for the water to run to the showers. Every prisoner has a spreadsheet, and his personal set of problems.
It's incredible how much it reflects the real state of the prison industrial complex, as we learned when we talked to the game's developers and a real architect.
6. The Beginner's Guide
"Are games art?" is not a question we need to keep asking in 2015. A more interesting and specific question is, can a game make you understand and personally connect with its author in the way, for example, as writing in the first person can.
The Beginner's Guide proves that it can, and in a way that is unique to video games. It's a short, touching experience I've written about at length when it came out, and that I still don't wish to spoil.
All the games on this list are great, but The Beginner's Guide is the most personal and moving game I played this year, and for that reason, probably the bravest game on this list as well. It's pushing the envelope in a way the vast majority of games aren't even trying.
5. Fallout 4
I was cool on Fallout 4 at first. I still think it has a lot of issues, but boy does it have a grip on me now. I'm 50 hours in and I see no end in sight.
What got me wasn't the story or the ability to Minecraft my own post-apocalyptic settlement, but the weapons and crafting system. Bethesda role-playing games always allowed you to pick up any little piece of junk in the environment, but Fallout 4 gives you a really good reason to do so. That's not a dirty dinner tray, it's two units of aluminum, which I'll need to upgrade my power armor. That's not just a boardgame, it contains nuclear material that I'll need to upgrade my shotgun sights.
It's also a much bigger game than I first thought. The map might not span many more miles than Fallout 3, but it's way more dense. Every little corner of The Commonwealth is filled with things to see and do. The best experiences I've had with the game is when I was headed to an objective across town, only to get distracted by something in the distance, which pulled towards an entirely different story, which in turn led to other stories. Three hours later, I didn't reach the location I was initially heading for, but I found and did a bunch of other cool stuff. I got lost in the world, as the marketing for these games love to say, but it's a real thing that happens in Fallout 4.
4. Dying Light
That's right. One of the best zombie games ever made came out this year but you already forgot about it because it came out in March.
It's a first person game, but not much of a shooter because a gun is not what you want to use when fighting zombie hordes. You want a baseball bat or a machete, which Dying Light's deep crafting system lets you make more deadly with nails or electrifying mods. You also want to be fast and nimble, and Dying Light has one of the better freerunning (parkour, if you will) systems I've ever seen in a game (it rivals Mirror's Edge, which was dedicated to freerunning). And, as was the trend this year, it has a huge, open, and dynamic world you're free to explore, where no zombie encounter is quite like the next.
Do we need another zombie game ever again? Probably not, but Dying Light gets so many things about that particular survivalist fantasy so right, it'd be a shame to ignore just because so many other, lesser zombie games came before it.
Call of Duty got schooled by Nintendo this year.
I love multiplayer shooters, but will acknowledge in the same breath that the vast majority of shooters are boring. It's always the same soldier dudes running around in circles and shooting each other in the face.
It's a genre that needs a strong kick in the ass, but I'd never would have imagined that the most poignant kick would come from Nintendo, everyone's kid-friendly developer, which couldn't be further away from soldier dudes and shooting.
Nintendo's solution to shooter malaise is twofold. First, take the bullets out. Splatoon is a game about shooting paint, which completely changes the speed and physics of the projectiles. It makes you think in splats and blobs instead of headshots and center mass. Second, don't aim for the face. Don't aim for other players at all. Aim for the level itself. The way to win is to paint the world in your team's color, which is another way you've never played a shooter before.
It's fast, it's fun, it's colorful, and it has that signature Nintendo polish and charm.
2. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Hideo Kojima's nasty breakup with his publisher Konami is one of the biggest gaming stories of the year, and a big reason for that is that the divorce separates Kojima the beloved series that he worked on his entire career: Metal Gear.
Kojima's on to new adventures now, and I'm very excited to see what he makes next, but the real silver lining to this story is that he left Metal Gear on the best possible note.
Since the very first game, Kojima's ambitions were always bigger than any one Metal Gear could contain. Graphically, in terms of controls, and different gameplay mechanics, Kojima was always going for more than he was actually able to pull off.
Not so with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. For the first and sadly last time, his vision is executed perfectly. Snake, who for years has been too difficult to control, moved across the battlefields of Afghanistan and Africa like a slick Swiss Army knife where every tool is a different flavor of silent ass kicking. Whereas previous games felt narrow, Phantom Pain is huge and beautiful, easily one the best looking games of the year. Even Kojima's wackier ideas about building a private military empire, introduced in the lesser known PlayStation Portable game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, are fully realized here. In fact, they're the very addictive glue that ties this sprawling, epic, insane, final journey together.
Disbelief is a common reaction to playing Metal Gear. It's too crazy. It takes turns few games dare to take, but often you can also see how Kojima hit the wall designing this way. With The Phantom Pain, the madman finally did it. He created the game Metal Gear was always meant to be, an it's a masterpiece.
1. Rocket League
I could debate the merits of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain versus Fallout 4 and the state of open world game design in 2015 all day, but at the end of the day the numbers speak for themselves:
I played Rocket League, the soccer but with cars game, for almost 160 hours. Holy shit. That's a lot of hours. Probably too many hours. But I can't stop. Won't stop. I don't know how.
Rocket League is a very simple concept that opens up an infinite possibility space. It's always the same field with the same ball and the same cars, but different levels of skill and a physics engine that makes the ball bounce off your bumper differently depending on the slightest angle is a recipe for chaos, hilarity, and human achievement.
Yeah, I'm going big here. Rocket League is the game that made me understand the enthusiasm around eSports, because it is the stage for that level of drama. As is the case with real soccer, watching someone score a goal doesn't really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but it's beautiful and exciting. Watching one of the best Rocket League players in the world, Kronovi, boost into the air and score a goal with his rear bumper from across the field is just as exciting to me. When I do something half as exciting myself, that's just one of the best feelings a video game could ever give you.
That's the fundamentally human thing about playing—any kind of playing—that Rocket League is successfully tapping into. It's beyond competing with the best game of 2015. In my opinion, it may very well be one of the competitive classics, like Counter-Strike, Dota, and Street Fighter.
Now, if you're looking at this list and can't believe that your favorite game of the year isn't even mentioned, I've attached here a supplementary Best Games of the Year I Didn't Have Time to Play But Fully Intend to Once I Have the Time:
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Her Story (This was Zack Kotzer's favorite game of the year)
Assassin's Creed Syndicate
Super Mario Maker (Motherboard's Nicholas Deleon loved it)
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Batman: Arkham Knight
Cities: Skylines (The heir apparent to Sim City)