5. Prison Architect
I’m sneaking Prison Architect onto this list because it technically came into full release out of Steam Early Access during the Year of Our Lord Twenty Fifteen. Some people love it, some people hate it, and I’ve fallen deep into a pit of despair that lives at the heart of this game. Many enjoy games like Dwarf Fortress (or my favo Goblin Camp) because they want to see how far the systems and simulations go. That’s my relationship with Prison Architect. I’m constantly drawn into marathon play sessions not because I love prison, the sense of power I get from running one, or watching this horrible system run smoothly. I get sucked in because it just seems to keep going, down and down, simulating one of the most horrifying and violent institutions humans have ever come up with. I haven’t quite gotten them right yet, but Prison Architect is helping me put words to some real-world things in a systemic and structural way, and there’s something powerful about that.
4. Caves of Qud
So one of the developers of this one gave to my Kickstarter last year. That has nothing to do with me liking this game. Caves of Qud is a super weird roguelike that takes place in a world that’s one half Gamma World and one half Prophet, and if either of those references make any sense to you, then you’re missing out if you haven’t played it yet. It’s a world of mystery and strangeness where you can talk to camel people and pick which mutations best allow you to fulfill your lifelong dream of being a poisonous demon turtle. It’s also a roguelike-ass-rogulike in the most classical sense, and it demands so much attention and patience that I don’t think I will ever be good or even competent at it. More than any other game on this list, Caves of Qud has a particular kind of New Wave science fiction imagination that just can’t be beat.
3. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee: New ‘n Tasty
The original Abe’s Oddysee is tied with Rollercoaster Tycoon for Best PC Game of the Year every year since it has been released, so it’s perfectly appropriate that the high definition remake of that game be placed on this list. While the console version was released in 2014, the vagaries of list making allow me to put this technically-released 2015 version on my list. The game holds up beautifully: Abe farts, the mudokons laugh, and we know that our goofy little hero is destined to save the world by destroying the horrible conditions of factory farming once and for all. Also, this game has Elum, who is perhaps the best and most lovable creature ever placed into a game outside of the life simulation game Creatures.
2. The Beginner’s Guide
What a banner year for The Stanley Parable alumni! The Beginner’s Guide has really set the world of videogame thinkery on fire with its is-it-or-ain’t-it reality bending fictionalization that might not really be fictional, and overall I’m just 10,000% less concerned about that than I am with the form of the game. The Beginner’s Guide provided a framework for doing a small, focused game in an almost-anthology format in a player-friendly way that I really loved. This game is excellent not for the narrative trappings (which I enjoyed, by the way) but for the confidence of its construction. Games like Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable created a new horizon of imagination for the general public about what a first-person game could look like, and I want to see The Beginner’s Guide-likes in the future.
1. Sunless Sea
Your captain wants wealth, so she heads out into the black of the Underzee and travels north to the Tomb Colonies where the dead live. Or she travels south toward a horrifying sun. Or, worse, she goes east and encounters empires that would make Fallen London faint with shock. Sunless Sea is part roguelike, part choose your own adventure, part speculation game. You pilot a ship in a giant underground ocean, and more often than not you make choices that leave your crew mad, dead or both. It’s emotionally unforgiving, which is a breath of fresh air in a genre that prides itself on mostly being vaguely “unforgiving.”
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.