As I began drafting my Game of the Year pick for 2015, I realized something striking. In searching for a game that epitomized my impression of modern gaming, a lot of my immediate choices for the year couldn’t be true victors. The games that I put the most time into this year, Bloodborne and Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, are punishing yet enthralling efforts by From Software that iterate, both directly and indirectly, on the lessons learned throughout FromSoftware’s Dark Souls franchise. Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange series is a charming, spirited adventure series, positioned as a literary response to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, that filled me with an excitement for the craft of gaming.
But there again in my mind is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the game that epitomized the year in the industry. The yarn of The Phantom Pain has progressed even farther since my article on Kojima’s merciless abuse by Konami Games, to the point of thorough retribution. As Konami continues to flounder, Kojima has risen from the grave anew, taking his Kojima Productions studio independent before garnering a publishing deal with Playstation. The entire tale is some classical narrative—the death and rebirth of mankind.
The Phantom Pain is my game of the year because it was desperate to be something and became a wonderful yet flawed product because of that. It cost people jobs and created intrigue until finally culminating in what was ostensibly the best possible outcome. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is everything good and bad about video games in 2015.
I had expected to sink hundreds of hours into AAA games this year, but the biggest surprise of the year was 2D sport-platformer IDARB. Developed by Other Ocean Interactive, IDARB launched on Xbox One as a free title for Xbox Live Gold subscribers and remained free for those members through February. 12 months later, IDARB remains a favourite around my household and its 8-player support has almost completely replaced couch-multiplayer favourites like Mortal Kombat X and NHL 16.
IDARB is an acronym for “It Draws a Red Box” in honor of its origin as a pet project for Other Ocean developer Mike Mika who reached out to his Twitter followers for input. IDARB combines team sports fundamentals with Smash Bros-esque platformer combat to create turnovers. IDARB also features a live Twitter feed where spectators can trash talk and interact with gameplay via hashtags (called “hash bombs”); tweet @idarbwire with a unique game code hashtag and one of 37 hash bomb keywords. Hash bomb functions vary from distractions, to disorienting transformations of platforms or characters, to physical disruptions, such as the spawning of sharks that send players to the penalty box when bitten (#chum). IDARB’s 8-bit design is also extensively customizable and allows players to create their own teams, characters, logos, and theme music with ease. Between wild, arcade team-play and its unique method of spectator trolling, IDARB is a riot for 8+ people from its opening theme to its interactive victory screen, and it’s my pick for Game of the Year.
The horror fan in me can’t help but love Until Dawn. It plays initially like a videogame version of a slasher movie before morphing into something else entirely. It toys with player expectation by building off of the greatest of horror tropes and classic examples of horror movie characters. It’s also the best realized interactive-story to come from a big-budget game this year, and it appeals to seasoned horror fans and videogame fans alike.
I loved Her Story (the best narrative of the year), The Beginner’s Guide (the most provocative game of the year), and Rocket League (the most universally fun game of the year), because each were unique and rewarding plays. But in ten years, when someone asks me, “Which single game should I play from 2015?”—where subtext asks which game exemplifies the shapes and attitudes of players, developers, and publishers during the year—I will respond with Life is Strange.
We’ve been seeing indie titles get snapped up by Sony’s Santa Monica Studio and Microsoft Studio for a couple years now, but very rarely is there a small-team game picked up by the likes of Ubisoft or Electronic Arts. Square Enix, the largest Japanese game developer next to Nintendo, in a considerably out-of-character move, chose to publish Life is Strange in North America. In the same year, Square Enix published the latest in their overtly western RPG series Tomb Raider and Just Cause. Life is Strange, a female-led and narrative-driven adventure game, lacked the bombast of Square’s other games, but its success is likely a precursor to what Square will get on board with in the future. Even more, Life is Strange set the stage for more indies under big publishers in 2016—like the upcoming Unravel published by EA.
As an episodic game, Life is Strange followed the big footprints left by Telltale, and it can be largely considered the first successful post-Telltale episodic—after the quiet vaporing of D3 and the methodically slow Kentucky Route. Its release schedule, likely held in-part by Square, is contrary to the randomness of a Telltale series, where episodes are released every two months or every four, mood-dependent. As such the game became a talking point for the entire year, from its first episode in January to its last in October, and it seemed that every online forum came to life with positivity each time the game was mentioned. Life is Strange currently holds an 8.5 Metacritic user score, which is notoriously hard to achieve for games outside of the fan-favourite developer sphere. The very fact that a slice-of-life adventure game with two female leads was one of the most positively received games of the year should be an indication of the player landscape to come in 2016.
For all of the conversation it created, and the experiences it offered, Life is Strange is the best game of 2015.