Last year, Gamasutra abandoned an overall "best games" list in favor of presenting a comprehensive list comprising the picks of every editor contributing to the site that time. But this year we've brought back a select 10, as hashed out by the staff. Why?
Because it matters, essentially. We looked back at what we'd done in years past, and found that our criteria from that far-flung year of 2010 still hold sway over us: “the games that will remain in our memories as having defined the year for technical sophistication, storytelling, innovation, and pure intangible experience value.” Selecting a handful of games that stand above the rest says something.
Here they are, listed by title in alphabetical order -- not ranked. The commentary is taken from our individual contributors' write-ups, and you'll find links to those at the end of this list. You can also read or list of the Top 10 Game Developers of 2015. You can also read our 5 trends that defined the industry in 2015, and 5 events that shook it, too.
Bloodborne by From Software
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Much was written this year about how satisfying it can be to throw yourself against Bloodborne’s arcane systems until you master them, so I’ll try not to belabor the point here. Bloodborne just works for me, in much the same way From’s Souls games do, though with some significant change-ups in its core design that I really appreciated.
By designing smart new systems like the vampiric health-regain mechanic while eliminating (or at least drastically toning down) established safety nets (think: blocking and magic) Bloodborne’s developers made something more approachable than the Souls games that simultaneously forced series fans to master new ways of overcoming challenges within a familiar framework. They drove me out of a comfort zone, and I loved it.
Someone made Abraham Lincoln, Bloodborne hunter, because of course they would
There’s also a welcome tinge of the surreal coloring Bloodborne that I wish was more commonly explored in big-budget game design. Bloodborne reminds me of surreal fiction (think: Murakami novels) in a really good way. As I returned to this game throughout the year there were moments where elements of Bloodborne's design turned in a way that caused me to question my own perceptions of what was (within the game, at least) real and true.
I loved Dark Souls partly because it was designed to feel like a real place, with each area connecting to the rest in a way that seemed believable and real. I love Bloodborne partly because it seems surreal by design, with creatures and paths subtly shifting and changing in a way that made me question whether I’d ever really seen them before. - Alex Wawro
Downwell by Ojiro “moppin” Fumoto
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Downwell is the tightest piece of design on this list. It’s a small game, it’s focused, procedurally generated, and highly mechanical. It involves jumping down a well, fighting not only against enemies (you know…bats…blobs…frogs…), but interestingly, the force of gravity itself. Downwell gives players a few tools to steer that force—a left button, a right button, some boots that shoot bullets—but the constant, invisible pull toward the center of the Earth always wins. It’s the player’s job to manage that pull without dying, and that adds a sense of urgency that few platformers can claim.
The foundation of Downwell—the verticality of the levels, the pull of gravity, and the shooty boots—are supplemented by other impressively-considered systems that feed into an already excellent game: Shops make you think hard about where you ought to spend your hard-earned gems, and enemy behaviors cause you completely change your strategy at a split-second’s notice, for example.
We’re going to be hearing more about Downwell in 2016, and rightfully so, as it heads to other platforms. The game is an achievement in design, and considering this is the first commercial release for Ojiro “moppin” Fumoto, we may have more to be excited about in the future. - Kris Graft
Fallout 4 by Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
There are only two real certainties in life. The first? That Bethesda will release a game absolutely dripping in bugs, and the second? That we’ll all fall head over heels in love with it anyway.
Fallout 4 meets both of those expectations, but this year Bethesda made the curious choice to shake up its tried and tested formula, tightening up the shooting mechanics, putting a greater emphasis on action and narrative, and, in what was perhaps the biggest change of all, adding a deep crafting system that allows players to literally reshape the wasteland.
I know, it’s difficult to call any decision made by a developer as big as Bethesda “brave”, but after the success of Fallout 3 any changes ran the risk of alienating long-time fans and newcomers alike.
Instead, they slotted in seamlessly (although the main quest was lacking at times), and now I can’t imagine a Fallout game without them.
Whereas before I would’ve spent my time completing quests, but largely ignoring the intimate details of the world around me, now I can’t help but be drawn to each nook and cranny, like a true post-apocalyptic scavenger, searching for every desk fan, telephone, and used oil canister I can find to help me reshape the Boston wastes in my own image.
Those new additions mean the world of Fallout is now richer than ever, and when you consider the level of depth present in Bethesda games from days gone by, that really is saying something. - Chris Kerr
Her Story by Sam Barlow
Games can be many, many things. Somewhere on that vast spectrum rests “interactive drama”, the sort of ideal video game you can quickly rattle off to acquaintances as an example of where the medium shines. Games can be just as affecting, just as entertaining as a great work of film or television, you say; the only difference is, you get to actually play a part in a great game.
Her Story is like a great TV drama you get to be part of. Sam Barlow’s writing is excellent. Viva Seifert’s performance is sublime. The way the game's design presents both to you in chunks that can typically be pieced together in an hour or two, yet allows plenty of room for brilliant bits of deduction or intuition, is fantastic.
Playing through it, I felt trusted as a player. I felt as though the game was designed with faith that I would find my own reasons for playing through it, and my own conclusions from the story I eventually pieced together. I can’t be sure if that feeling was what Barlow intended, but it was a welcome one. - Alex Wawro
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain by Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami Entertainment
I have a lot of problems with The Phantom Pain. The writing, the character design, the online multiplayer component and the monetization systems leave a lot to be desired. But when I look back over a year that saw a surprising number of great open-world games released, it's still The Phantom Pain that I remember most fondly.
For all its flaws, Kojima Productions' final project under Konami's banner is a fantastic example of how a big team can augment and improve upon an established franchise with contemporary design elements while keeping the core game's unique strengths intact.
Audio logs. Base-building. Sidequests. Companions. Crafting. Fast travel -- sort of. Name a well-regarded element of modern game design, and there's probably a tailored version of it built into The Phantom Pain. Yet the final product feels of a piece with previous Metal Gear games, building upon their weaknesses without obscuring the idiosyncracies -- from overblown cinematics and hyper-dramatic twists to megalomaniacs piloting giant robots -- that have become the series' calling cards.
It's not quite as systems-rich as I'd like (then, again I was a fan of Snake Eater and its hunger/injury mechanics) but I'm hard-pressed to think of a game this year that better communicates, through mechanics alone, the feel of being a lone soldier in a hostile wilderness.
I've met a few people at parties this year who worried that Japanese game development has become somehow stagnant, outmoded, and too inward-facing to succeed in a global game industry. I don't think that's true: The Phantom Pain is an outstanding example of craftmanship and attention to detail in big-budget game design, and it stands alongside other 2015 releases like Splatoon, Bloodborne, Xenoblade Chronicles X and Downwell as a sterling example of both the scope and skill of modern Japanese game developers. - Alex Wawro
Rocket League by Psyonix
Probably on a few end-of-year lists, Rocket League is an unlikely idea -- soccer with cars -- polished to within an inch of its life. As a direct result of that, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game in years.
There are probably a lot of subtle reasons why the Rocket League works, many derived from the fact that this is a second-generation car soccer game (?!) But an easy automatching service, solid online play (after demand-related glitches early on!), and carefully designed arenas that maximize the ‘ball bouncing just in front of goal’ are just a few of them.
It came as a surprise to me that there’s so much high-level play in the game as well. But that’s yet another sign that this unlikely sport is here to stay -- if it’s fun for clunky neophytes like me, and still fun for thousand-hour veterans. It’s turned what could be stereotyped as a "silly physics" game into a long-lasting eSport -- a surprising result that Rocket League has joyfully and effortlessly bounced into. - Simon Carless
Splatoon by Nintendo
Every once in a while a game comes along that makes a slight change to a popular formula and reinvents ludic reality in the process. By taking the basic structure and gameplay of competitive FPSes and making a small tweak to the conceit, Nintendo’s Splatoon created a fabulous all-ages multiplayer shooter that is surprisingly nonviolent. The adventures of the adorable squid kids who star in the game has produced a bottomless, purple- and orange-colored well of memes and in-jokes, a small sign of the vibrant fan community the game has produced.
In so many ways, it’s the embodiment of the late, great Satoru Iwata’s mantra: “Above all, video games are meant to just be one thing: Fun for everyone.” Splatoon was a risky new IP for Nintendo but one that has paid off spectacularly well and proven that Nintendo’s accessible, games-for-everyone platform remains as vigorous as it was at the dawn of the Wii era. - Katherine Cross
Super Mario Maker by Nintendo
What's left to say about this game? What probably leaves the biggest impression on me is that it is exactly what it ought to be. How often can you say that?
The developers carefully considered what is essential to the franchise -- and I don't just mean that in terms of, say, gameplay mechanics or popular characters. The question was to fundamentally identify what was key to Mario and then make it accessible to an audience who'd not be playing it, but building with it. That's a crucial distinction.
Not since I was a kid was I able to so deeply enjoy building my own levels in a game -- and that's because of the allure of Mario and the excellence of the toolset working hand-in-hand to provide the best possible platform for your personal platformer. - Christian Nutt
Undertale by Toby Fox
Another much picked end-of-year favorite for 2015, this enchanting one-man Earthbound-ish 2D RPG jaunt stands out for two reasons.
Firstly, its combat system is a clever twist on normal turn-based RPGs. But secondly, and more importantly, Toby Fox’s title is one of the wittiest, best-written games in recent memory. Characters are impeccably well-laid out, the pacing is good -- though gameplay is a tiny bit repetitive on occasion -- and small, brilliant narrative touches are all over the game.
Wait, okay, I guess there’s more! Thirdly, the soundtrack -- also composed by Fox -- is one of the catchiest in aeons, and has already spawned about a billion YouTube remixes. Fourthly, there’s quite a bit of emotional depth underneath all that wit, and this is reinforced by the multiple ways you can choose to act in the game – from smashing to persuading.
Fifth, the ways you choose to behave in-game triggers some notable gameplay changes -- and different ends to the game. Once you realize this, you’re constantly scanning Undertale for different things you could have done and their effect on the narrative. And the "what if?" factor creeps up and you decide you might want to play over again. And again. And -- bravo, Undertale is the feel-good hit of the year. - Simon Carless
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt by CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt
The Witcher 3 isn’t just a set of short stories. It’s a novel, packed with dozens and dozens of short stories around it. While one of Andrejz Saprowski’s books might focus on a central narrative with a few narrative deviations, The Witcher 3 is an open landscape for stories, where the fabled hero Geralt of Rivia can chase down the main plot or roam the countryside in the menial moments we might not see in other adaptations of this character.
The worlds of Skyrim or Fallout might contain some of these "games as a platform" moments, but they’re mostly constructed through environmental clues and left-behind-notes. The Witcher 3 gives the player a chance to become invested in these disconnected threads through dialogue and choice. They can snark, they can ask for more pay, then can offer unneeded advice, or they can just take the job, and become wrapped up in the complicated lives of the people of the Witcher universe.
This isn’t a knock against the game’s main quest -- though I confess I found the constant “you just missed her” of Ciri’s presence in the plot a tad grating after long complicated diversions like the city of Novigrad. But ultimately when I think of my time with The Witcher 3, I think of all the fascinating and unsettling moments that happened when I stepped off the beaten path. Whether it was the final encounter with the Women of the Wood or interviewing witnesses in a murder investigation, The Witcher 3 is most alive when it was flipping through the many stories of Geralt’s life -- not the ones that put him against the darkest forces of the Universe. - Bryant Francis
Hungy for more 2015 best-of? Gamasutra published its Top 10 Game Developers of 2015, too. Gamasutra contributors also each wrote up a personal top-five list -- and you can read them here: Kris Graft, Christian Nutt, Alex Wawro, Simon Carless, Bryant Francis, Katherine Cross, Chris Baker, Chris Kerr, and Brandon Sheffield's unique "most surprising '90s games."