In compiling this list of the “Best PC Games” of 2015, I realized that I clearly enjoy two kinds of games on this platform. I enjoy massive deep-dives that soak up hundreds of hours, and I enjoy games that you can play in about a half hour. Everything in the middle is in the realm of the console, the altar of gaming staged from the couch zone. The time sinks and the blips of gaming are reserved for a very uncomfortable office chair, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Buckle up and get ready to read the most mind-blowing and definitive list of the best games released on the personal computer platform during the year 2015.
After the Grand Tragedy that was SimCity, the world yearned for a city building game that did not give them a massive amount of “the sadness.” Some retreated to the hellish waters of SimCity 4. Others wandered into the wastes, never to be heard from again. But lo, the siren song of building a weird little city was heard by a fair few, and the Cities: Skylines developers hollered back from the borderlands that they would definitely make something that was playable and fun. And everything was good in the world. City building games are fun!
This game of bird lawyering barely snuck into the calendar year, but it is such a perfect encapsulation of a particular kind of humor that I’m honestly shocked that more people aren’t talking about it in a near-constant state of shock and surprise. It’s a classic game of detection where you collect clues about a court case and then argue about them in court, and the confidence of tone that surrounds protagonists Jayjay Falcon and Sparrowson is so unique that I kind of want to cry right now. It’s that affecting. In any case, this is a game that I haven’t even finished yet because I want to savor it, so I’m slowly creeping through it case-by-case. I mean, animal-people. Come on!
Crows Crows Crows, the development team behind this game, are going to be delivering some really special stuff in the coming years. I enjoyed lead developer William Pugh’s The Stanley Parable for what it was, and I gushed about [sometime Paste contributor] Jack de Quidt’s Castles in the Sky for Paste when it was released a couple years ago. While I now know the latter well enough to tweet back and forth with him, I sort of slept on Langeskov until very late in the year, and I’m worse for it. I’ve had such little time to reflect on this game, where you’re trapped “backstage” in a game during a labor strike that leaves you pulling the levers and pressing the buttons to help someone else experience a really excellent game experience. I don’t even want to attempt an “it’s a game about X” statement, because at the heart, it’s a game that’s about a game that’s about a tiger that protects an emerald.
Ethan Redd is a developer who I got to know by reputation before I got to know him personally, and it was through the amazing GIFs of electricity-infused 1990s early-3D game aesthetics. It’s word salad, but Redd seems to necessitate word salad in order to talk about the specific time and place that he’s able to evoke with his games. It didn’t seem like many people talked about Rad Road Rally this year, and it’s a shame. The game hits all of the notes for those with strong nostalgia for both Hotwheels and the “rollinnnnng staaaaart” of Daytona USA for the Sega Saturn. Play the game! Drive the tiny cars! Do that yell from “Rolling Start” the whole time, like I did, and just be like “Aaaaauuuaaa-aaaaaaa!” It’s the only way to play most games.
The Witcher 3 is a masterpiece of its genre and medium, and I cannot fathom leaving it off any “best of” list for a platform it was released on. I’ve been following the life of Geralt the Witcher for a fair few years now, and The Witcher 3 is a beautiful iteration on a fairly well-worn story concept. This guy wanders around a fantasy world and does things, and that world is so finely crafted from the shape of the land down to the speech of the people that populate it that every moment of the embarrassing number of hours I spent playing felt well-spent and emotionally rewarding. Also, Geralt stares at a goofy cat for a full minute. Also, trolls.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.