How is 2015 already winding down? Not only has it not been enough time since I last put together one of these lists, but it feels like we’re still waiting for a definitive, prohibitive favorite game to come out, something like Bastion in 2011 or Gone Home in 2013 that stakes a clear claim for the most memorable game of the year. There were no no-brainers in 2015, but that doesn’t mean it was an artistically weak year for videogames. This might be the most varied “best of” list published during my time here at Paste, with a solid distribution of time-devouring, big-budget epics and smaller, quieter, less commercially driven endeavors, all of them exciting in their own right, and fully deserving of your free time and money. There are also music games again? 2015 was weird. Let’s relive it.
On a personal note, this has been a year of change here at Paste. The inimitable Jenn Frank came on board as our assistant games editor in July, capably filling the shoes of long-time assistant editor Maddy Myers, who moved on to a daily gig at The Mary Sue. Some of my favorite writers to work with have found full-time homes with some of the biggest outlets in this industry, from Austin Walker at Giant Bomb to Javy Gwaltney at Game Informer. Our success here at Paste Games is almost entirely dependent on the contributions of our dedicated crew of freelancers. I don’t want to name names because I’m sure I’d forget somebody, but I want to thank every writer who wrote anything for Paste’s games section this year, from the workhorses who posted regularly, to the writers who only wrote a single piece. This section wouldn’t exist without you.
Of course, it also wouldn’t exist without our readers. Thanks for supporting us, as always, whether you check the games page every day or visit occasionally when social media sends you our way. Hopefully you like what you see here, but I wouldn’t be too upset if you really hated it, as long as you still gave us a chance.
All schmaltz aside, let’s get into it. Here are our favorite games of 2015.
The Chinese Room has created a world and a community that, in its depth and subtlety, feels real. It shares the verisimilitude of a Ken Loach film but without the politics, the characters sounding like real people having real conversations. Before the scope of the mysterious illness dawns on everybody and overtakes all conversations, we hear them talk about the sort of personal issues that videogames rarely discuss, like the slow pain of a disintegrating marriage, the anxiety of young parents, or the absence felt when a lifelong partner passes away. These moments of empathy and humanity are when Rapture excels, uncovering poignancy in areas this medium has generally considered too mundane to explore.—Garrett Martin
Invisible walls, authority figures who have pre-determined mistrust towards you no matter what you do, no sense of personal privacy, and a never-ending to-do list… I guess I never realized all the inherent similarities between high school and videogames until I played the first three-hour episode of Life Is Strange. It reminds me of the parts of Beyond: Two Souls that I didn’t hate: a teenage girl with super-powers but also realistic life problems and serious consequences. Everybody else at school thinks Max is stuck-up and a pretentious jerk; I can tell why they’d think that, and it’s why Max seems human and flawed. She’s just a teenager, trying on different types of “coolness” for size.—Maddy Myers
Mortal Kombat X is fascinating in how parts of it seemingly want to get away from the nasty elements that made the series a household name and yet the gravitational pull of legacy and expectation is too strong. Mortal Kombat X is, in the end, no matter how much it wants to persuade you otherwise, just another Kombat game. It also happens to be one of the best ones.—MM
The latest Disney Infinity finally adds Star Wars to the mix. That’s another powerful draw in a game that heavily relies on our familiarity with its characters and settings. Nostalgia only takes you so far, though, and Disney’s great blender of a game crams as many different game types as possible into its various play sets and toy box expansions. It’s a third-person platformer, an open-world game, a side-scroller, a dungeon crawler, a kart racer, and whatever else you want it to be, thanks to the deeper-than-ever toy-box mode. It’s basically our childhood imprinted on a disc and dispersed across a line of beautifully designed toys, and then sold back to backwards glancing adults and excited children alike.—GM
Rock Band 4 intentionally feels as much like classic Rock Band as it can, and that will be comforting for the game’s dedicated cult following. Letting you use instruments and play songs from older consoles is more than you should probably expect from a videogame, but it’s also something Harmonix had to do to make sure the most diehard Rock Band fans made the jump. I am one of those diehards, as is my wife, and we seamlessly slid into Rock Band 4 like we were still jamming on the Xbox 360. It is the same game, more or less, and that’ll be good news for people who love Rock Band.—GM
Gravity Ghost pulls apart the typical challenge-reward cycle for a physics-based puzzle game, flinging itself mightily toward finding that space between science and love. The quest to bind together stories of science and love isn’t always an easy one to take on, but ultimately Gravity Ghost gets the job done.—Bryant Francis
Sunset, a first-person game from Tale of Tales, exists somewhere between the grand love story of Casablanca and the softly spoken pain of Raymond Carver’s characters. It is a game of startling beauty housing quiet but immense ambition. [It’s] an all too rare kind of game that focuses on people loving and hurting in mundane but almost unbearable ways.—Javy Gwaltney
The Beginner’s Guide is a game that does game criticism work, and it actively questions the role of the critical player as someone who can lay out the meaning of a work for the larger field of players. The top Reddit comment that tells you the “real” story of a game? Implicated. Ideology-uncovering critical pieces? Implicated. Explainer videos that elide details to make a larger point about an entire franchise? The worse kinds of readers. And [designer Davey] Wreden-the-narrator/-the-creator is suggesting that we might need to let works speak for themselves. Sometimes objects are not conduits into a rich inner life of a creator. Sometimes a game is not a barometer, or at least not as much of an on-the-surface one as many readings and readers would suggest.—Cameron Kunzelman
Guitar Hero Live, with its streaming music video channels, is now as much of a music delivery service as it is a game, and that ensures its livelihood, at least in my household. As long as they’re running and updating Guitar Hero TV, I’ll carve out time for this game. It offers something that no other game, and really, no other TV station, currently does: a powerful combo of play, nostalgia and discovery. I mean, I’d never buy a Darwin Deez record, but I’m glad I’ve seen that video, you know?—GM
Japanese role-playing game Xenoblade Chronicles X proudly boasts all the indulgent genre trappings you’d expect: a sprawling cast and story, a massive world to explore, hours of optional business to distract you from that story, a combat system that is barely explained and makes no sense at first but becomes incredibly satisfying once you figure out its systems and tap into its unique rhythm. It will remind you why you once loved this kind of game, back when you were young and had nothing else to do. Xenoblade Chronicles X also surpasses the gorgeous visuals of its predecessor, presenting us with interactive Roger Dean album covers to jaunt through while slaughtering alien dinosaurs.—GM
Apotheon is a game of delight and wonder, an expression of unabashed love for myth. That it’s possible to turn such love into an engrossing adventure that coalesces in a way so few games do reminds me of my own love for games and of their potential as a medium of beautiful expression. Apotheon, then, is the kind of videogame we need more of.—JG
Soma isn’t much of a horror game. It uses horror trappings as a jumping off point to find more intelligent and interesting trails to follow. Its follow-through is impressive. When it talks about something, it goes for it, and the results are rarely pretty or happy but almost always intriguing. And most importantly it asks us to consider questions that might become relevant sooner rather than later.—Suriel Vazquez
The Phantom Pain might be the only open-world game I’ve ever played where I can say I feel like I wasn’t wasting my time on some activity that was dull or poorly designed. Even my favorite games in the genre all have at least one or two clunky activities that they force you to do over and over again for the sake of progression, tainting the experience. However, nothing feels like a chore in The Phantom Pain. It’s a game made by people who know the pieces of its construction intimately and how those pieces should connect to one another, who understand that making the small moments matter is just as important as the big picture.—JG
When I think of my time in Witcher 3, which is still going, I think mainly of the quest for Ciri, your adoptive daughter. I think of mages with freckles and villagers working fields after you drive away their tormenters. I think of it as a game which says that all we have is each other, as family and friends. As people, whose lives are short but brilliant. As a game that says that what makes life worth living and struggling for isn’t trying for perfection but our common imperfections. It’s aspiration by way of mundanity and I don’t know that I’ve played anything quite like it.—Ian Williams
Ori and the Blind Forest is a gorgeous adventure with an aesthetic that seems vaguely indebted to a variety of world cultures and mythologies. With its focus on forest spirits and a sylvan setting it resembles a Miyazaki film, but there’s no explicit connection to Japanese mythology. It borrows the fundamental feeling of mythic storytelling to depict a basic hero’s journey, with all the loss and personal growth that entails.—GM
Her Story is more character study than good old-fashioned crime yarn. The immediately familiar clichés from Law and Order and CSI are quickly overtaken by the clever writing and the personality of the game’s central performer, the mysterious woman played by Viva Seifert. As easy as it might be to dismiss Her Story as a flimsy gamification of search engines and wiki-diving, the loop the game creates, rewarding you for searching for clues in the woman’s speech with more videos, is genuinely gripping in a sad horror novella kind of way.—JG
Rocket League is the only game I’ve played that’s captured the truly exciting bits of soccer for me. The vast majority of (the admittedly few) sports games I’ve played are so beholden to seasonal statics that I’m just always so bored because I can’t be bothered to keep up with the annual Who’s Who of professional leagues. Rocket League’s touch of zaniness allows it to focus on the bare essentials of the game: there are the players, a ball, and two goals. There are no stat games here. No managing players. No fluff. Just soccer…with turbo-powered RC cars, and it’s all the better and more accessible for that.—JG
Boosterism is out of character for me, and I’m honestly as surprised as anyone else is that I’ve had such a (dare I utter the word) visceral reaction to Until Dawn. It’s genre-changing across the board, and I literally cannot wait for other games to pick up even 1% of what it brings to the table in terms of narrative and design innovation.—CK
Most purposely difficult games that have arrived in the wake of Super Meat Boy, Spelunky and Dark Souls are embodiments of a failure to understand that there’s more to those games than just how hard they are, often making the only thing enjoyable about them the fleeting sense of achievement you get when you finally overcome a poorly-designed obstacle through luck or trial and error. Downwell, with its velocity and elegant simplicity, does not make that mistake. It’s a difficult game, certainly, but it’s also a generous one, likely providing its player with great heaps of joy for a ludicrously small time investment.—JG
Splatoon is not trying to corral unearned cool points with obscenity. Splatoon does not push us to accept its weirdness. Splatoon merely opens its suction-cupped palms to the sky and says, “Here,” and we graciously accept, parched by the years of dusty, war-torn, bone-dry purveyors of damage masquerading as games. Each waterfall was in fact an oasis. Instead, Splatoon showers us with a heavy goop that feels amniotic. We emerge, new and refreshed. We are all squids now.—Jon Irwin
Bloodborne is a distillation of everything that worked in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. The combat is fast, less clunky and more risky. Yharnam is a stunning world worthy of hours of exploration, and, perhaps most pleasant of all, Bloodborne is a game that knows when to end. It’s a deeply challenging game set in a fantastically realized gothic nightmare, an adventure of the highest quality for those willing to undergo the game’s trial by fire.—JG
There are parts of Cibele that are clumsy, too earnest, but I don’t know what I would change. Would it have touched me so deeply if it didn’t wear it’s heart on its sleeve so much, if it didn’t want to so accurately portray that kind of female, teenage experience, blog posts and all? Perhaps its ending is too abrupt—but I’m not sure that [designer Nina] Freeman wants to linger on this version of herself all alone. It’s what I want, to see her pain when she logs back into the game and has to deal with the emptiness where Ichi, Blake, used to be. But the game isn’t really about her pain. It’s about how she loved.—Gita Jackson
For many players Super Mario or one of its many sequels is the ur-videogame, the first brush with a controller, the most elemental building block in an entire multi-billion dollar industry. The ability to muck about with our most powerful memories and experiences is bewitching and almost unthinkable, but that’s the core of Super Mario Maker. It’s exactly as good and as bad as you think a Super Mario level editor would be, and that’s entirely subjective upon your own thoughts and opinions.—GM
It’s amazing that something with Fallout 4’s scope and magnitude remains as bewitching as this game does. Bethesda’s formula is overly familiar by this point, but from a story perspective these games exploit the freedom afforded by the medium more than almost any other notable examples. Fallout 4 is built on mystery and discovery. We can charge through the main storyline as quickly as we’d like, but the true power of this game comes from exploring at our own pace, uncovering its secrets in no certain order and at no set time.—GM
Undertale is a special game, the likes of which come along only once in a great while. It’s a look into a parallel universe—one where videogames have realized a bit more of their potential than, say, the AAA industry has in our world. It’s a game that can make you laugh while teary-eyed, where both competing emotions are natural and genuine. It’s fun, it’s sweet; it’s an experience that will stay with you long after you’ve put the game away.—Bryce Duzan