Every December, instead of searching for a group consensus, Gameological looks back at the year in games through individual perspectives. These are the staffers’ personal takes on a few games that have stuck in their minds for whatever reason—big or small—and does not represent any sort of institutional expression. These are simply the games we liked.
And as with every year, you’re all invited to write your own mini-retrospectives in the comments. Just follow the rubric we’ve laid out here—set up your rationale in the first sentence and go from there. (It’s fine if your picks overlap with ours, because you’ll probably have a different reason for digging a game.) We’ll collect some of our favorite responses in a special Games You Liked edition of Keyboard Geniuses on December 30.
In part one, we’ll hear from Anthony John Agnello, Sam Barsanti, Matt Gerardi, Zack Handlen, William Hughes, and Joe Keiser. Make sure to come back tomorrow for part two!
I liked Mortal Kombat X because it takes itself just seriously enough. Mortal Kombat, the 2011 refresh of the fighting-game series famous for giving Joe Lieberman a case of the vapors, should have been a dead end. Retelling the story of pretty much every previous entry from the last 20 years, it not only felt like the studio’s best work, it also felt like its definitive statement on gory fisticuffs. There was nowhere left to go. Even its story mode, the eternal afterthought of fighting games, felt like a closed loop. Mortal Kombat X’s promise of more detailed bone chips flaking off a lizard man’s skull seemed like a moot point before the game came out.
But Mortal Kombat X instead feels essential. The many new characters, most of them descendants or protégés of past kung-fu weirdos, are all distinguished and damn fun to play. Bee lady D’vorah, with her multiple stabby limbs and exploding larvae, fits right in next to Cassie Cage as an instant classic. They also fit into a story that’s a worthy continuation of the previous game’s dumb, fun theatrics. I couldn’t believe how involved I ended up getting in its tale of interdimensional politics and necromancy. Rather than a rote exercise in commercialism, Mortal Kombat X is the opposite of mercenary brand life-support. This is the closest anyone’s ever gotten to making a game that feels like a John Carpenter movie, a perfect balance of silliness and serious craftsmanship.
I liked Odallus because it’s metal as hell. Heavy metal and its many, many permutations rev my engine first and foremost because of their emotional ambition. The soaring, wintry spirituality of black metal like Agalloch, the pummeling rhythms and questing bass of progressive metal like Intronaut, and the technical enervation of death metal like Slayer; it all wants you to feel infinite. Everything’s always just so damn big. JoyMasher’s Odallus is full of that ambition and scale.
While it’s written in the language of late-’80s action games like Castlevania, Ghosts ’N Goblins, and Faxanadu, it also uses many of metal’s favorite motifs to fill its stiff challenges with history and otherworldly magnitude. Controlling a vaguely Scandinavian hunter—looking like he’s been living in Agalloch’s album art—whose son has been taken by demonic invaders after they wreck up his village, Odallus sends you through a series of vintage fantasy locales rendered with energetic originality. Part of what makes Odallus’ trip so magical is how perfectly its ancient temples, haunted forests, and grisly monster dens are interconnected. Many developers have tackled the winding cartography of Metroid and Castlevania, but even master class examples like this year’s Axiom Verge often lack the provincial seamlessness of Odallus’ mythic countryside. Every time you find a new item like boots to jump higher or the ability to breathe underwater, it leads you deeper into the game’s soil full. Steering your warrior over dead tree branches as he slices creepy freaks with too many teeth is equally empowering and overwhelming. It’s a tough but fair journey; you feel like a growing force, but always small in the face of the world’s harsh natural colors.
I liked N++ because every level feels like a class in storytelling. My wife loves watching the game more than she does playing. Every level is laid out to be a perfectly flowing narrative, a moment of discovery followed by obstruction and catharsis defined by rising action. So spare yet also so complete; even the way your little ninja falls fuels that feeling of connection and meaning. That there’s a seemingly endless supply of these little dramas makes it all the more enjoyable—as long as you don’t break your controller after failing to beat that one level for the hundredth time.
N++ isn’t fundamentally different than its predecessor. Individual rooms full of simple traps laid out in mind-bogglingly complex and subtle arrangements have to be navigated as a fragile, infinitesimal stick figure with surprising ups. Playing through the first 50 or so stages feels like a learning period, a selection meant to teach you the ins and outs of the challenges that will follow. As you plumb deeper and deeper into N++ that turns out to be an illusion. Each stage ends up being its own lesson, and the process of learning it imbues the struggle with an impressive range of emotion. Not only did you just learn how to jump up a wall, you laughed when those spikes popped you once you reached the top. Not only did you discover the way momentum affects the reach of your jumps, a palpable longing comes with each failed attempt to collect all the little coins in each stage. The old school Warp Records-style ambient electronic music, the customizable color palette, and the quiet naming of each stage all add texture and depth to its contained tales. N++ wasn’t built to be a textbook, but it might be one of the best ever made.
I liked Soma because it knows there’s no solution to existential dread. Frictional Games’ sci-fi story about what it means to be yourself—whether you’re human or not—is great because it recognizes that multiple things can be true. What’s more, it uses almost every old hoary trick from the science fiction playbook on its road to revelation, but it manages to subvert all of them along the way. There’s a lack of confidence woven into Soma. Fear, real keep-you-up-at-night-staring fear, comes out of just walking through the game’s sunken hallways and talking to the people that still live down there. Yet it still has sections where you have to run away from monsters. Its exploration of humanity’s oldest enemy, namely our inability to conclusively say why the hell we’re alive, is so harrowing and complete that it’s easy to ignore those stupid glowing troglodytes.
The game gracefully answers all of the immediate questions that pop up in the wake of its unexpected opening (Is this real or my imagination? Is this the future? Am I still me?), but more importantly, it never takes the easy path to answering them. A lack of detail is often mistaken for profundity in stories that ask big questions. Soma invites you to live in a world, explore it until the questions arise, and then examine the answers from every emotional perspective. It’s as imperfect and contradictory and awesome as everyone you’ve ever gotten to know.
I liked Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain because it finally, and ironically, made me feel like the legendary soldier the series always said I was. The Metal Gear Solid series has always felt a little constrained by technology. As much as I love Metal Gear Solid 3, for example, I’ll never forget the way I had to stretch all of my fingers in order to go into first-person view, pop my head out from behind cover, and shoot at an enemy. Though MGS5 certainly suffered due to limits on technology and the budget and patience of Konami, it’s still the first game in the series where the action truly comes together. Moving your character around feels incredibly smooth, and if you plan well enough, any mistakes that happen while sneaking into an enemy base really feel like your fault and not a result of the game being unfair. The use of a dedicated “dive out of the way” button also helps this, making the context-based controls of certain other stealth games feel painfully slow and unresponsive. The heroes in MGS are always improbably awesome soldiers, but few games have ever made me feel as improbably awesome as The Phantom Pain did.
I liked Star Wars Battlefront because it has an “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” button. The developers behind the game were so concerned with making it look like Star Wars that they actually went to Lucasfilm and got their hands on the real props and models that were used in the original trilogy, scanned them, and then made virtual recreations. That means when you see an X-Wing fly above your head in the middle of a multiplayer match, it’s not just a digital version of the iconic ship, it’s a digital version of the actual ship from the movies. Does that really mean anything? No, but it’s cool and it goes a long way toward making the game look like Star Wars.
Battlefront doesn’t only look like Star Wars, though, it also feels like Star Wars, and the developers pulled that off with just one button. Like a lot of online multiplayer games, Battlefront has unlockable animations that allow your character to dance or whatever, but the best is a default one that everybody starts with. Just hit the d-pad in the right direction, and your character will nervously put their hand on their chin, shake their head, and say some variation of “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Throw in the fact that you’ll sometimes hear a Wilhelm scream when one of your teammates dies, and this game is about as Star Wars as it gets.
I liked Batman: Arkham Knight because I actually wanted to find all of its stupid secrets. Like all of the recent Batman games, there’s a lot of mostly pointless stuff you need to do in order to get a 100-percent completion in Arkham Knight. To completely beat the game, you have to finish the story mission, the side missions, and then a series of Riddler challenges that include underground Batmobile races, locating Batman Easter eggs, solving simple switch-based puzzles, and then finding a ton of tiny Riddler trophies hidden all over the city. None of the Riddler stuff is especially difficult, but it would be an absolute chore if the game didn’t make it practically effortless to find exactly where all of the puzzles and trophies are hidden.
That means instead of aimlessly walking around Gotham in hopes that I’d stumble onto the Riddler’s telltale green light, I could pick out the thing I want to do, hop in my Batmobile, and drive straight to it (maybe with a quick stop to shatter the bones of some unlucky goons who happened to be in my way). While the story missions give you a narrative reason to do the things you do, completing the challenges gave me the freedom to just be Batman for a while. It was still occasionally frustrating and took a long time, but now that I’ve done it, I can rightfully declare that I’m as awesome as the real Dark Knight.
I liked Flywrench because it understands the thrill of letting go. Messhof’s game about a rectangular spaceship flapping its way through a brutal circuit of minimalist obstacle courses is often lauded for the premium it places on precision. As soon as it’s done showing you the ropes, it gives you as much control over the flexible flying machine as possible and demands you employ it to perfection. It’s a trying test of reflexes, planning, and pattern recognition that elicits the kind of lip-biting, wide-eyed stress that, as a noted video game masochist, I love feeling.
But there’s an unexpected joy hidden beyond Flywrench’s trauma. At a certain point, maneuvering the ship becomes second nature and all that micromanagement and stop-and-go trepidation occasionally relents to bursts of euphoria as you send your spacecraft flying in just the perfect trajectory to slingshot through the level and into the goal. You’re shuffled from one course to the next in a vortex of kaleidoscopic art and furious break beats (courtesy of the game’s phenomenal soundtrack), all of it coming together to draw you into a propulsive trance that just begs for you to stop thinking so much. Trust your instincts and enjoy the ride.
I liked Downwell because it pits you against the most persistent enemy imaginable: gravity. Sure, there are all sorts of tangible baddies out for your blood as you dive down this hole in search of treasure and adventure, but they’re all just the flunkies of your one true nemesis. And what a brilliant nemesis it is. Killer bats may give chase, but they can be outmaneuvered if you’re wily enough. Gravity, on the other hand, is ever-present and unrelenting. It’s always dragging you down the well, not necessarily to your certain doom but to the unseen, which is perhaps an even scarier destination when your life is this fragile and your gunboots—half modular firearm, half foot-mounted jetpacks, and the perfect weapon for facing down both monsters and gravity—hold so little of the ammunition needed to keep you afloat.
Solid ground is your only ally in this struggle, a chance to breathe and reload. But gravity, that dastardly villain, even has a way of compelling you to avoid that lone comfort. It promises great rewards if you give in to its terms and welcome the freefall with all the panic and stress that accompanies it. And in the end, even if you somehow manage to kill the monster that waits at the bottom of the well, collect your reward, and gunboot the hell out, there’s no defeating gravity. You may have survived it this time, but it won’t get the comeuppance it deserves and it won’t leave you alone any time soon.
I liked Super Mario Maker because it taught me how hard it is to make a simple game fun. The basic elements of Mario seem straightforward enough: jumping, enemies, mushrooms, the occasional fire-breathing turtle-dragon-thing. Super Mario Maker provides players (users? creators?) with all those tools and more, offering space and opportunity for any budding game designer to remix one of the classics of the genre without having to muck about with programming or licensing fees. The challenge is what to make of all that possibility, because it turns out designing a Mario level that’s playable and engaging is a lot harder than it looks.
The Mario Maker servers are crammed full of messy, bizarre, and outright crazed entries, stuff that’s enjoyable for novelty’s sake (“Wow, a whole screen full of giant flying piranha plants. That’s new.”) but lacks the imagination or spirit of the original games themselves. The level designer allows the player to discover on his or her own the thought and care that goes into every decision, be it pipe placement or question-mark-block reward, and how difficult it is to design something that’s straightforward without being dull and engaging without being (nearly) impossible. Mario Maker teaches people the basics of design and gives them a new appreciation for how great games work, one block at a time.
I liked Bloodborne because it kept its secrets close. The first surprise Bloodborne has for its players is its most obvious one: The game doesn’t really do shields. For anyone who’s played the games of director Hidetaka Miyazaki (Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls), this will come as a shock, but the impact this particular lack has takes time to uncover. The steady rhythm of combat of veteran Souls players won’t work in the harrowing, broken world of Yharnam without certain adjustments, but no one tells you this. There are no helpful figures telling you “Hit fast and hit hard,” because players are expected to figure this out on their own.
This is true of nearly every element in Bloodborne. You’re given enough information to progress, more or less, and tantalizing hints at deeper mysteries, but those mysteries are never comfortably solved. This isn’t a new style for the developer, but the approach suits this game’s otherworldly horrors perfectly, building a thorough, complete world and then daring each new hunter to dig as deeply as he or she chooses. It encourages you to go deeper, even as the knowledge you’re gaining demonstrates just how in over your head you are, a tension that mimics the underlying “we delved too deep” narrative. Every inch of ground, every scrap of plot, has to be earned; and with each, the danger grows, and the urge to move forward intensifies, whatever the cost.
I liked The Magic Circle because it celebrated the creative process at every step. On its surface, Question’s first-person hacking challenge—set as it is in the ruins of an uncompleted computer game destroyed by hubris—is as cynical about the pitfalls of creativity as it’s possible to get. While your nameless tester wanders the remains of a half-built world, cluttered with dummy features, narrative dead ends, and stuff that’s just plain broken, its game designer “gods”—including The Venture Bros.’ James Urbaniak, giving the best vocal performance in a game since Logan Cunningham growled his way through Bastion—bicker and fight, desperately kludging together a passable demo to con their fans into one more burst of cash-infused enthusiasm.
But The Magic Circle is trickier than it seems at first glance, and far more in love with the creative process than its brutally funny writing would initially suggest. That becomes clear in the game’s final, eye-opening act, which dares a player who’s spent an entire game laughing at the foolishness of vain and self-important designers to try their hand at the work they’ve so casually dismissed.
I liked Her Story because it made me feel more like a detective than any game I’ve ever played. Games struggle with mystery, crashing hard against the problems that inevitably occur when “comprehending the story” is a goal being tuned to the crime-solving skill level of millions of different players. Either my hand is held too tightly, and all the answers fall unsatisfactorily into place, or too loosely, and I’m left to flail around feeling helpless. Either way, it makes it hard to feel like a real gumshoe, hot on the heels of a hard-to-solve case.
But in Sam Barlow’s Her Story, the mystery is the sum total of the game, freeing me from having to provide any answers but the ones sitting in my head. Jumping between disparate clips of a woman (Viva Seifert, giving a layered performance) being interrogated about the disappearance of her husband, I hunted for clues, puzzled over discrepancies, and tracked down leads through the game’s keyword search system, which encourages innovative thinking and sudden bursts of inspiration. There’s no end goal or big finale here, no moment where you’re forced to choose a culprit or lay out all the evidence in a parlor-room scene. Instead, the game ends with a simple prompt, asking you if you think you have a firm enough grasp of what happened so many years ago, and quietly accepting it when you tell it that you think that you do. For someone who’s almost torn his hair out from playing Phoenix Wright, it’s an incredibly refreshing bit of design.
I liked Rocket League because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to actual sports. The beauty of Psyonix’s high-speed take on soccer is its simplicity; there’s no (meaningful) leveling up, no new verbs added as you pick up power-ups or play X number of matches, no differences in the abilities of you and your opponents. There’s just you and your teammates and your skills, slowly honed from game after game played against your identically gifted online opponents (who always seem able to coax something just a little more impressive than you could manage out of their rocket-powered, soccer-playing cars).
That level playing field is what makes Rocket League feel more like a sport than a game, with all the endlessly iterating joy contained therein. You just drive, flip, and boost, striving to slam the floaty giant ball into your opponent’s waiting goal. And just like in actual sports, the potential for drama that emerges from these simple rules—the last-minute goals, desperate saves, and moments of true on-field heroism—are what live on well beyond the ending of any particular match.
I liked Life Is Strange because it used an unusual voice to tell an unusually beautiful story. It’s a tale about a high school girl in the Pacific Northwest. But it’s also a tale that was written by adult men in California and France, so there isn’t a word in the game’s dialogue that sounds natural. Its primary claim to fame is that it coined “Go fuck your selfie,” which is used over and over as an insult but sounds more like somebody’s Dad turning the one thing they know about “kids today” into a Zen koan.
But then the game has the audacity to build its emotional core around the friendship of two teenage girls. I dare you to come up with names of any other games that do that. (Really. Please do it. It would be a lovely list.) And then it spends time with that relationship—a lot of time. So much time that eventually the awkward writing just becomes the reality of Max and Chloe, the unique language of the unbreakable bond between them. When Max’s coming-of-age story concludes, this friendship gives the last few hours and choices an unbearable weight. I don’t remember how I felt the countless times I’ve saved the world in a game, but I don’t know that I’ll ever forget Life Is Strange’s last heartfelt, “Go fuck your selfie.”
I liked Horizon Chase—World Tour because it felt like it came from an alternate reality where mobile games are lovingly crafted from ancient design knowledge. That isn’t to say I dislike modern mobile games—I love many of them a great deal—but it’s an objective truth that the economic realities of that market require its biggest titles to integrate their pay structures into their play mechanics. Sometimes this works really well, but most of the time, it’s something I feel like I have to focus on to make sure I’m getting a fair deal. That’s only fun if you’re the sort of person who enjoys grocery shopping by unit price instead of retail price.
Horizon Chase is a mobile game that is paid for one time, like in the good old days. For those few dollars, it provides hours of precision-controlled arcade racing across dozens of lovely lo-fi tracks. The rival racers are a bunch of road-hogging jerks that are both challenging and a joy to defeat. The cars all feel interesting and different to drive. And its score, which is expertly composed by the veteran game musician Barry Leitch, fills the game with energy and synthy verve. Don’t be fooled: Horizon Chase is not a throwback. It’s a look at a gaming future we didn’t get and don’t deserve.
I liked Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes because I exploded, and my partner didn’t care. A multiplayer game that is best enjoyed with a VR headset (though that’s not a mandatory addition), Keep Talking places the goggles-wearing player in a room alone with a bomb, a timer, and no information on how to defuse the explosive. And so they have no choice but to rely on their partner, who (100 percent of the time in my experience) is a tequila-addled doofus with a stained bomb-defusal manual they’ve never read. Maybe I should pick better partners.
The manual is also intentionally arcane, making the game a real-life case of the one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind, as the person with the manual is absolutely in charge. They don’t need the bomb-defusing player. They’re not in the room with the explosive, watching the timer tick down, clipping colored wires until sweat fills the Oculus Rift. It’s not just an asymmetry of information but an asymmetry of stakes that makes Keep Talking a unique and hilarious party game. Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes is about trust, but it’s at its best when that trust is willfully misplaced, leaving plenty of blame to go around.
[Author’s note: If you’re planning on playing The Beginner’s Guide, you should not read even a single word about it. Anywhere.]
I liked The Beginner’s Guide because I’m not sure how to talk or even think about it. Hosted by Davey Wreden, creator of The Stanley Parable, it presents itself as a short exploration of the unfinished games of an anonymous designer named Coda. Wreden idolizes Coda, and as he excitedly hosts the journey through these simple games, he also thoroughly deconstructs them.
But Wreden’s deconstructions get increasingly unhinged, and as his narration becomes darker and more unreliable, The Beginner’s Guide contorts itself into a Möbius strip of unfathomability. Is this a game about the fallacy of attributing authorial intent? And by asking that question, are we ourselves committing the fallacy of attributing intent to Wreden, the game’s auteur creator? And what about that question? Was that his intent? Wait, is this the same fallacy again? Asking a critic to critique The Beginner’s Guide is like saying, “This statement is false” to a robot.
That alone makes it one of the year’s most interesting works, and one that cements Wreden’s status as among this medium’s most fascinating and virtuosic creators. (There’s that fallacy again.) I will never fully grasp my own relationship with The Beginner’s Guide, and that complicates my relationship with games in general. For someone who has played games for decades, that’s a fascinating way to feel.