Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Games I Loved in 2015

I’ve written a Game of the Year list for SMPS every year since 2011. It’s something I've always looked forward to, and in the past I've put a lot of work into getting them just right.

However, in 2015 those lists were fully replaced for the first time by the GOTY Sockscast, and no written lists were posted on the site. Some part of me still wanted to assemble one though, if only on my blog. Like always I got a little too ambitious, and without a deadline I never got around to finishing it.

Until now that is. Here's a list of some magical games I deeply enjoyed playing in 2015. Even though it’s a bit late, I’d still like to share them with you.

Shin Megami Tensei (1992)

Shin Megami Tensei exudes class. It co-opts the vocabulary of Wizardry's first-person dungeon-crawling ilk and uses it to explore complex moral questions and psychological spaces. It knows graph paper mazes are fun but not deeply fulfilling in and of themselves. So it contextualizes them with weighty themes and sparse but effective storytelling.

I deeply admire Shin Megami Tensei as a series. Playing its progenitor has only strengthened my respect for its execution and ideas.

Defenders of Oasis (1992)

You can neatly divide most JRPGs into two categories: the ones that get Dragon Quest and the ones that don't. Rieko Kodama's RPGs, including Phantasy Star, Skies of Arcadia, and Defenders of Oasis, fit firmly into the first camp.

Defenders of Oasis is staggeringly elegant. There're only four party members, each with meaningfully distinct abilities and motivations. There're only a handful of dungeons and towns, all used and reused to great effect. There's no world map. Bosses all have narrative context, and some are even recurring villains with actual motivations.

It honestly reminds me of Mother 3 more than anything else. It lacks Itoi's poetics and surrealism, but I really do think it matches that game's restraint and precision. In a quiet way, it's sort of perfect.

Dragon Quest IX (2009)

The Dragon Quest games are the world's most sensibly designed RPGs. This one is no different.

Seiklus (2003)

"In Seiklus, you can practically smell the sunshine," as a friend said. The game brims with human warmth. It was a tiny revolution, put together in just six months in Game Maker and released in 2003, when these kinds of personal, stripped-down videogames weren't as common. There's no death and no violence. All it asks is for you develop a relationship with its world.

Builder (2011)

Builder is an oppressive and achingly human waking nightmare. Since it predates Problem Attic and Fjords by two years, and Game Title and Corrypt by one, it's chronologically the first truly incisive puzzle game built around glitch logic I can think of. It's uncomfortable, lonely, and moving.

Fjords (2013)

Fjords is the most interesting puzzle I've enjoyed this year. It's an exploratory platforming game, but unlike most in the genre (and like the others on this list) it gives you all of the tools you'll need up front. Hence, the puzzle of Fjords is to untangle your complex relationship with its world. It's a bit of a cold game -- ultimately I prefer the pathos of Seiklus and Builder -- but it's a gorgeous one too.

Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden (2008)

Barkley is a period piece about a specific subset of internet culture, one centered around RPGMaker and Japanese media. I know because I was part of it. A few now-defunct RPGMaker forums were the first online communities I really considered myself a part of. Barkley nails the dynamics of those groups, between its ripped art, esoteric pop culture references, and sincere respect for the JRPG form.

Jill of the Jungle (1992)

It's so easy to be a boring platformer. Jill of the Jungle isn't. Movement is crunchy and nuanced. Each level is a well-paced story. It has perfect singular moments of catharsis. And the music is great. That's really all it takes.

Gradius: Interstellar Assault (1991)

I've always only ever admired the Gradius series from arm's length. They're fun but somewhat cold games. They don't feel as rich and considered to me as games like R-Type.

Interstellar Assault is an exception. It's stuffed with human touches: the seamless flow between levels; the prison escape set-piece; the tense chase at the game's start and its cathartic resolution; the exhilarating climax. It goes the extra mile in a way few other shmups manage.

For the Frog the Bell Tolls (1992)

Adorable, inventive, uproariously funny. The Japan-only predecessor to Link’s Awakening is maybe the most charming game ever rendered in four shades of green.

Polly Clicker (2015)

It's a peculiar feeling to be exposed to a group of friends' inside joke and not get it. I wouldn't say it's a bad feeling in some contexts. Generally, someone making those kinds of jokes around me is a sign that they're comfortable with me being there, that I'm getting a glimpse into their truer self.

Polly Clicker is a light RPG-combat game that’s stupidly fun to play and stuffed full of references to my social circle’s favorite pop culture ephemera. In a way it’s a big collection of Things We Like and inside gags. I can't say for sure what a stranger's reaction to Polly Clicker would be as I'm in on the joke, so to speak. But I like to think a person could play it and get a slightly better sense of who we are as people.

RayForce (1994)

What game makes as immediate and striking an impression as RayForce? Just the visuals are enough to endear me to it forever. I don’t know if I ever seen sprite-scaling and parallax scrolling used to such a positive effect. It makes a joke out of Mode-7, and it rivals Sega's finest arcade efforts. I can’t think of a more lovely-looking game in the genre.

The aesthetic doesn't just stand on its own. It lends weight to a beautiful, terrifying story. It's a game about descent and discovering horrible truths. It's about gradually understanding a twisted system, wondering how things got so bad, wondering what on Earth we can do to fix things. RayForce doesn't really have an answer, but it’s enough that it articulates the question.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (2003)

This year I made a concerted stab at enjoying the IGA-model Castlevania games, to mixed results. Symphony of the Night is pretty and has nice architecture. Circle of the Moon has a satisfying whip and very little else. Harmony of Dissonance is full of rich psychology and frustrating, confused design. In that sense it’s likely the series's only real successor to Simon's Quest.

Then there's Aria of Sorrow, which is just a damn good videogame. The soul system is sensible and coherent. The castle is interesting. And unlike any of the others it has a genuinely affecting story.

Aria isn't the only IGAvania with a pulse -- Symphony and Harmony really are lovely games in their own right. It has something more than that though: a heart of fire.

We Know the Devil (2015)

A videogame contains a set of rules that present a viewpoint about how the world works. They can do so accidentally, or with surgical precision.

We Know the Devil is among the latter. It's a short, dense visual novel with four endings. Three are oppressive, real, inevitable. The fourth is sublime catharsis. We Know the Devil is the world as it is, and the world as it can be, if we’re willing to reach out for it.

The King of Fighters Series (1994-Present)

I love King of Fighters because it engages as a series of single-player action games. Its sense of style is impeccable, with excellent music and gorgeous 2D pixel art (both peaking on the NeoGeo with King of Fighters ’99). They feel fantastic to play thanks to artful use of screen shake, split-second pauses during moments of impact, and rock-solid sound design. The fighting is intensely strategic, and only gets more-so the more you learn how the games work.

Most captivating are its characters. For ten straight years new King of Fighters games came out annually, each contributing to a tangled web of relationships and plot threads. Characters are introduced in one game and die in another several real-life years later. Nuanced relationships are hinted at through customized character intros and voiced but untranslated dialogue. King of Fighters XIII even has individually-written conversations between every possible set of two characters.

There is no fighting game series I've connected more immediately and deeply with than King of Fighters. I like Leona, Clark, and Ralf best.

Demon's Souls (2009) and Dark Souls (2011)

Both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls end with a choice between perpetuating or breaking an ancient cycle. There’s a clear difference in psychology between the two games that’s evident in how these choices play out.

Demon’s Souls is about power, and those who seize it at the expense of those around them. It’s reflective – this is a game about absorbing thousands of enemy souls and using them to grow stronger. The logical conclusion of your path through the game is to mimic King Allant and strike down the Maiden in Black. The game clearly wants you to take the other path however, allowing the Maiden to perform her ritual and reseal the Old One, beginning the endless cycle anew.

Dark Souls is about recognizing that there’s no such thing an endless cycle. All flames eventually burn themselves out – this is as true of a match as it is of a sun. You can follow in the path of Gwyn and make the fire last a little bit longer at the expense of your life. Or you can refuse, and let the world as it is fade away in exchange for something new.

The Souls games are the jewel of an entire generation of console videogames. They are singular achievements, and they will last.

Undertale (2015)

Here's a nifty thing about Undertale: it has no generic NPCs. Every character you come across has a unique design and personality. Even the random encounters, themselves full of charm, represent a finite number of characters that live in a given area.

Mother 3, another game that loves to play with RPG conventions, also doesn't have generic NPCs. The game takes place over the course of several years, and it's stuffed full of seemingly inconsequential characters. You see most of them in almost every chapter. You see how they grow and change as the story progresses. This tactic is a large part of why Mother 3 feels so intimate and momentous.

Undertale takes place over just a few days. Unlike Mother 3, these days can progress along several different paths depending on our actions as players. We see a different side of every character depending on what path we're on. (We also see a different side of them based on what paths we've been on. That's one of the game's cleverer tricks.)

The characters are the most important part of Undertale. No facet of the game can be divorced from them, not its music, not its mechanics, not its world. Our relationship with the characters is Undertale.

Our relationship with a doting mother aching to fill an unfillable void. With an overeager goofball and his pun-loving, all-knowing, impossibly sad brother. With a headstrong hero. With an infatuated scientist burdened by secret failure. With a semi-murderous narcissist. With a beloved and wicked king pining after his lost family.

Our relationship with our worst nightmare. With six lost children. With our best friend.

Our relationship with a star-struck kid, with amalgamates of departed souls, with a smoochable ghost. With a sisyphean janitor, with two best friends in an alley, with a stoic bartender. With an inscrutable hidden village, with a lonely river creature, with a helpful ferry guide. With an extortioner looking after her family, with an annoyed fast-food worker, with an impressively tenacious snail.

Our relationship with our reflection. With our EXP, our LOVE, our name.

Our relationship with our little lost cypher who projects all of our hopes and dreams, only to leave us forever in the end. And we let them, because we want them to be happy. Or we don't, because we have to see more, we have to spend more time with all of these characters, we have to see everything there is to know about them even if it hurts them.

Undertale is life-changing. It's the most generous game I've ever played. It's been months and I'm still trying to make sense of how a game this good showed up in my life out of nowhere. Witnessing its popularity and success fills me with immense joy.

Thanks for reading -- this is probably the last one of these lists I’m gonna write for a while. Gonna try to write more frequent smaller essays throughout the coming year instead. Or maybe I’ll just make a bunch of cool games, who knows. Feel free to listen to our 2016 GOTY podcast right here. I hope you have a happy new year.

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