Each year we expect games with better graphics, sound design, bigger actors and more marketing power than we can endure. Who wants to bet the next Grand Theft Auto game will have a Kellogg’s cereal toy tie-in?
But games are meant to be so much more than flashy graphics and explosive sounds that scare you more than that dreaded THX intro we all suffered through at the cinema. Thankfully, there were many games this year which went beyond simply making shapes and sounds to grab our attention.
The Witcher 3? Dude, who cares. Metal Gear Solid V? Sorry, you won’t find that here, even if it does end up becoming the last major production headed by Hideo Kojima. This list includes titles that all push the envelope – each in their own unique way – in the most important department this medium too rarely focuses on: gameplay.
10. Dark Echo
RAC7 Games – PC, iOS, Android
There was no way I could ignore one of the most innovative titles of the year, Dark Echo. This unusual game consists solely of footpaths and hallways, where you’re controlling a character escaping from unknown monstrous forces throughout each area. It may sound empty and look minimalist but the effect of it all is hard to ignore. It only took a few minutes of Dark Echo to make me realise just how well the developer had pulled off this huge gamble, by realising how fast my heart was beating. This is one of the most unique horror games ever, and one you simply shouldn’t avoid.
9. Super Mario Maker
Nintendo – Wii U
Yes, nobody really owns a Wii U and Nintendo is already trying to speed up the work on its next hardware release. However, Super Mario Maker will end up becoming the console’s best title with ease. This game allows you to create, share and play levels of Mario with the style of four different Super Mario games. The most bizarre feature of the Wii U – the large touchscreen controller – is the most innovative and helpful tool in Super Mario Maker, allowing you to swiftly create new levels in a matter of minutes (or hours, depending how complicated you want to make them).
We’re already seeing an explosion of challenging levels being made by the sadists who love to torment fellow gamers. But just remember this: each level uploaded for peers to play has to be completed at least once. Get ready for several cups of coffee because this is going to end up making you the most determined gamer in the world.
8. PewDiePie: Legend of the Brofist
Outerminds – PC, iOS, Android
There was huge anticipation ahead of this game’s release. It wasn’t coming from a well-known developer or attached to a some huge blockbuster, but the question was whether or not the millions of PewDiePie bros would be satisfied. Outerminds have done a fantastic job of turning the chaotic energy of a Pewds video into an appealing, retro-style platform and action game. The levels are varied, and the game is complete with power-ups and multiple playable characters which allow you to hit back against the evil barrels (yes, barrels) in a number of different ways.
(Disclosure of interest: I love PewDiePie.)
7. Until Dawn
Supermassive Games, Sony – PS4
Ever since Heavy Rain, the interactive movie genre has had an awful lot to compete with. These are games that allow you to play as numerous characters and make choices throughout the story, eventually reaching one of several different conclusions. The most appealing thing about Until Dawn is that it’s a horror game that isn’t simply dark and grimy like virtually every major release, but one that looks genuinely spectacular too. The story itself follows a group of friends heading to the snowy mountains of Canada for a winter getaway where, believe it or not, things get a bit scary! There’s also a cast with faces you might actually recognise, such as Claire from Heroes, everyone’s fourth favourite Swede Peter Stormare, and also Mr Robot. The numerous endings will keep you coming back for more but just be prepared for some level of blood and horror during each play-through.
6. Rise of the Tomb Raider
Crystal Dynamics, Square Enix – XBONE, XBOX 360 (PC and PS4 soon)
In 2013, Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Lara Croft franchise to make the only Tomb Raider game that was worth playing. It was excellent, and a comeback for a character who had been mistreated in so many ways throughout some terrible releases. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a direct sequel for our new Lara Croft heroine, carrying her personal story forward as she fends off enemies, battles through absurdly dangerous terrain and explores, yes, tombs. Rise of the Tomb Raider shows that female characters in games don’t have to be designed in the completely sexist way we’re so accustomed to from this industry, and can engage audiences in an adventurous journey few games can match.
5. Ori and the Blind Forest
Moon Studios, Microsoft – XBONE, PC
Ever since this title from Moon Studios was announced, onlookers were hooked by the mysterious visuals and compelling storyline. Ori and the Blind Forest seems to follow the same minimalist style as Ico at first, but eventually creates its own outlook using the same confidence brought by the recent Rayman platformers. In the game, you control Ori, a guardian spirit, travelling with Sein throughout a forest, overcoming obstacles and puzzles along the way. The game effortlessly glides you through a compelling narrative, and is the type of modern platformer a well-established developer would make, such as Nintendo, which is no small feat.
Supergiant Games – PS4, PC, iOS
Yes, fine, this game technically came out first on the PC and PS4 last year but it did make its debut on iOS this summer. Supergiant Games use the same isometric view as their last release, Bastion, a game that continues to remind the industry of the importance and influence of indie gaming. You control Red, a famous singer in a compelling sci-fi universe, being chased down by enemies who want to take a powerful and mysterious sword, called the transistor, off you. The game looks and feels like no other, reminding me instantly of both The Matrix series and its cyberpunk attitude but also Japanese anime through the care shown in the development of Red. This is a game you must check out, especially as it’s now available on iPhones and iPads.
Moppin – PC, iOS (Android soon)
I didn’t “get” Downwell at first. But after spending the cup-of-coffee price, I wanted to see what I was missing. So I kept controlling the pixelated man further and further down the well he decided to peek at in the park. This bizarre vertical-scrolling platformer becomes more and more challenging as you become more and more proficient in attacking enemies and gaining power-ups along the way. I’ve played this game so much during commutes and I’m now trying to master it on PC, but the game never fails to surprise as levels are generated in a whole new way each time you play, changing how awesomely good (or bad) you are in reaching the bottom of the well.
2. Emily is Away
Kyle Seeley – PC
Of course I was going to include Kyle Seeley’s unique MSN messenger simulator, even if I was emotionally traumatised when I played through it multiple times recently. (It’s still free to download.) You play a guy periodically chatting to Emily, from high school until graduating from university, and try to manage each interaction by revealing how much you care for her. The PC you’re using is Windows XP, judging from the famous default wallpaper, hitting your brain with instant nostalgia. In my review, I stated how the game can be anything and everything to the player, and that’s what’s so masterful about the experience. It will annoy some, but most who end up checking it out will instantly reminisce about the sounds of dial-up internet and speaking to friends so intimately, despite the distance.
1. Life is Strange
Dontnod Entertainment, Square Enix – XBONE, XBOX 360, PS4, PS3, PC
Life is Strange was easily the best game I’ve played this year. Dontnod Entertainment released the game throughout the year as five separate episodes, culminating in a devastatingly touching ending to a storyline that you can alter in so many ways, similar to Heavy Rain. The game follows Max, an aspiring 18-year-old photographer away from home at a prestigious school. She quickly learns her former best friend Chloe is still living in the same area in Oregon. Before that happens, you realise Max has visions of an apocalyptic future during a photography class in which she dozes off without care. The game allows you to see alternate realities and rewind scenes so you make different choices through your actions or during conversation with others. Each character has their own unique personality, allowing Max to unravel their secrets in so many ways, each revelation stunning you as you painfully decide to do what’s right.
And that’s what makes Life is Strange stand out way ahead of the others released this year. Despite its interactive movie nature, the game is still varied, with puzzles, stealthy scenes reminding you of Splinter Cell, and visuals as rich and cinematic as the original Max Payne. In fact, the game made me think of Rian Johnson’s directorial debut Brick, which followed high school student Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role of a hard-boiled detective.
Max is quirky and awkward the same way we all were at that age (perhaps now, too), making her easily relatable. I also loved the fact the game looks like a waking dream, keeping you on your metaphorical toes as you pay close attention to everything, sight and sound. But it’s the story that puts it in another league, the one thing that can push a game from being merely a game. The feelings of optimism and regret hit me in the gut the same way as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
Life is Strange is so much more than the sum of its episodic parts, and the experience will keep you thinking about whether changing that one thing you did on Wednesday was all that important in the grand scheme of things. Life is Strange is one thing that will definitely change it for you.