12 Jan

The Roll the Dai 2015 Definitive Games of the Year List

This is perhaps as far from random as I can get. This post – this comeback post, this reemergence, this magnificent Girl-On-Fire entrance into the Capital post – is instead a very intentional though somewhat sloppily judged list of what I consider my top games of the year.

What is a game of the year? It’s a game that came out in 2015, which is both limiting (because I play lots of random games that are a few years old) and unclear (because lots of games are released before they’re released now), but I’ve tried to keep it relatively tight. Stick around after the Definitive Ten for some bonus content if you’re a Roll the Dai Premium Member.

I want to make clear a few things before we start. First: this list is it. You don’t need to go read any other game of the year lists, because game of the year lists are dumb and subjective and you should just enjoy the games that you enjoy. Also, because this list is the best and only correct game of the year list.

Also, I didn’t play a bunch of new games this year. For example, I didn’t even touch The Witcher 3Bloodborne, Pillars of Eternity, Assassin’s Creed London Bridge, or Halo 5. I didn’t play the following games enough to feel like I could include them: Life is StrangeRise of the Tomb Raider, and COD: Black Ops 3. So, forget those games.

All right, all right, all right. Here are my top 10 games of the year.

10. Super Mario Maker
Super Mario Maker

All in all, I didn’t play as much SMM as I would have liked, but it was a game that I felt made a pretty large impact on me in a short amount of time. Working daily on another game that is hugely influenced by how easy and satisfying it is to create user-generated content, SMM was both interesting, exciting, and frustrating.

The editor portion of SMM is easy-to-use and the timed unlocks help layer complexity naturally. I enjoyed creating levels and playtesting them. It helped push my mind in interesting ways – a kind of do-by-learning series of lessons on level design lessons for what works and what doesn’t. It allowed me to try to make levels that my children would find enjoyable and levels that my more game-saavy coworkers (and random Internet users) would find fun.

There’s no other game (other than maybe Trackmania) where I felt like I could as easily and quickly jump into the game and start creating content that was actually fairly interesting. Where SMM falls flat for me is the set of community features; it’s not easy to find levels I liked to play and I ended up tapering my play out once I had worked my way through my friends’ levels. If I wanted to play the more generally satisfying Nintendo-authored levels, it was still random with no narrative (story or mechanics-wise) which made it less compelling for me.

9. Star Wars: Battlefront

ETHICS DISCLOSURE: as an EA employee, I got the game for free.

I was pumped for this game. The Star Wars hype this year was off the hook, and when I look through my current library of Star Wars games, Battlefront is at the top of the list. As a mainly multiplayer game, the life of this game will obviously always depend on the size and sentiment of the community. Right now, though, it’s a heck of an experience.

There’s so much that just works about this game, but the fact that it just feels like being plopped in the middle of Star Wars is at the heart of what makes it feel so good. Specifically, the environments are beautiful, the characters (both generic troopers and heroes) feel satisfying to play, and there are a large variety of modes that allow for different strategies. There’s even a decent co-op wave-based survival mode that feels just as good, if very different.

Battlefront is a bit like the Casablanca of video games for this year. It comes out of a big studio, has a huge license, and is a great example of the AAA system at work. And it clicks! Sure, I ran into some really icky matchmaking and party system bugs, but once I’m dropped in a game, nothing else matters. It’s Star Wars, in much the same way The Force Awakens is Star Wars.

Massive Chalice

I had loaded a small selection of games on my laptop to entertain me when I went out of town for a half-week this summer for my brother-in-law’s wedding. I had anticipated giving them all a fair shake, but instead just played MASSIVE CHALICE (ugh, do I really need to write it in all caps every time?) for 8 hours over the course of a few days.

MC hits a lot of the right notes. In many ways, it feels like tactics powerhouse XCOM, but it’s cheaper ($20 full price!), simpler (less choices at any given moment), and less punishing (no crying when heroes die). It does some very interesting things with time, life, and death.

Because it enforces death (all units age and die), there isn’t an intense un-fun pressure to build and keep superunits alive for the length of the game. Random events, bloodlines, and breeding all throw wrenches in well-laid plans. While this makes it hard to make highly organized long-term plans, it also means that this isn’t the expectation. I really enjoyed the flexible mid-term strategy that this game encourages, along with the whimsical fiction that’s layered on top.

There’s literally a massive chalice in the game. It talks to you. You get to arrange marriages. I mean, what’s not to like?

7. Rare Replay
Rare Replay

Do you know anything about me? Any fun facts? Here’s a fun fact: I love deals. And man, Rare Replay is pretty much the physical manifestation of a good deal. If nothing else, it gets props for that.

A nice bonus is that the collection of games is actually fairly decent! I get to play older games like Battletoads and Banjo-Kazooie. I get to share the silliness of Viva Pinata with my son. I get to explore games like Grabbed by the Ghoulies that are unexpected delights. There’s some light meta-game progression and achievements.

So, while Rare Replay doesn’t really provide anything really new, it does help push for Xbox One backwards compatibility and provides one of the best values of the year.

6. You Must Build a Boat

YMBaB was one of the genuine surprises of the year for me. It’s the spiritual sequel to the game 10,000,000 by the same developer. Both games are what I would call action puzzlers; they call to mind things like Puzzle Fighter or Pokemon Puzzle League in terms of intensity and flow, but there are some specific mechanics that set them apart in important ways.

YMBaB is unabashedly single player. It doesn’t have you competing against another player, real or artificial. Instead, it uses a clever dungeon-crawling mechanic to manifest monsters that can be defeated with matches. It has an overarching campaign with a clear mission (which is, unsurprisingly, to build and fill a boat). It has satisfying progression against that goal.

The puzzle matching gameplay is very much like PopCap’s cute fuzzy game Chuzzle – you manipulate rows and columns to get different icons together. It’s easy to learn, yet the combination of what obstacle appears, what the current quests are, and the randomness of the current board mean the game never feels routine.

On my best runs, YMBaB makes me feel like a savant, able to run farther than I ever thought I could against ever-increasing odds. On my worst runs, I still feel like I make progress. It’s a simple-looking game that can fit into the odd 10-minute chunk of free time I have, but can also keep my playing for an hour or two. That’s no easy feat.

5. LEGO Jurassic World
LEGO Jurassic World

I have a soft spot for the LEGO video games, and despite two other slightly disappointing LEGO games coming out this past year (The LEGO Movie Game and LEGO Worlds, both of which fell short for different reasons), I was willing to give LEGO Jurassic World a try. I’m in the sweet spot for this game; I still hold LEGO Marvel Super Heroes as one of the best games in recent memory and I’m a big nostalgic fan of the Jurassic Park series, even in its darkest William H. Macy valleys.

And LEGO Jurassic World delivers. It delivers exactly the kind of semi-challenging whimsical LEGO take on a franchise without messing too much with the formula, yet gives just enough extra carrots (LEGO dinosaur customization, anyone? ) to make the game stand out from every other LEGO video game ever made.

It’s not groundbreaking or intellectual or a must play, but I’ll be darned if TT Games hasn’t figured out the magic formula to take a property, dress it up in LEGOs, and squeeze a mountain of content into a tall drink of a game that goes down so easy.

4. Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation

Speaking of surprises, what am I? A man of the 80s who watched Transformers cartoons as a child and now invites all of his friends to every single Transformers movie that comes out, regardless of their blatant disregard for storytelling, continuity, or good taste? (No, that’s not me.)

I picked this game up on sale, on a whim, because I’d heard a few good things about it here and there. And here it is, #4 on my list. Devastation is the most fun I’ve had in an action-combo brawler since God of War. Somewhere, in the back of my head, a voice cried out when I began playing Devastation. It said, yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for.

Something about the combination of the cartoony-yet-serious art style, the fine line between button mashing and combo timing, and the loot collecting/upgrading sets Devastation apart from other decent-but-unspectacular titles of its ilk in the past few years – games like Dante’s Inferno (which I thought was underrated), Darksiders (which I thought was overrated), and Bayonetta (which I just never played enough).

Sure Devastation has the license going for it, but as a casual Transformers fan, there’s something else there. There are times when it almost plays more like a fighting game where your opponent doesn’t quite know enough about the intricacies of the game. It gives a feeling of superiority and satisfaction while never feeling easy cheesy.

Also, there’s a microgame where you can forge upgraded microchips for the Autobots and royally screw it up, which is pretty much exactly what I imagine my role on the Autobots would be.

3. Batman: Arkham Knight
Arkham Knight

In some ways, Arkham Knight gets a bit of a pass because it concludes a three-game series that has engrossed me since Arkham Asylum blew me away over 6 years ago. It’s no easy feat to continue to outdo yourself, but despite a few small missteps, I feel like the entire Arkham series of games (Asylum, City, Knight – let’s set aside the perfectly servicable Origins for now) has really managed to keep the heart of the game intact.

Every few years, I look forward to the opportunity to become Batman. Arkham Knight does this as well as previous Arkham games, but delivers with it some of the best storytelling beats in the entire series. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on spoilers, but I’ll try to keep it cryptic yet clear.

A character is introduced near the end of the first act, who is then used as a brilliant narrative device for the rest of the game. I cannot stress how well this works; most of the trouble with the Batman games is that Batman is so often alone, and there’s only so much emotional story that can be told through radio conversations with Alfred. The choice to have this character serve as a constant foil and companion throughout the story makes everything better.

There are so many smaller, more precise moments where Knight calls out with such emotional punch that don’t feel as artificial as they may in other stories. There’s a fantastic visual moment that happens at the start of the final act of the story which pays off the buildup of the conflict to that point. There are many varied moments of internal struggle that are played out in physical and visceral ways that do a good job of placing the player in Bruce Wayne’s head.

There’s also a lot of driving around and shooting in the Batmobile, which I found enjoyable to the end. If you’re not a big fan of driving or weird agile-tank-based combat, that’s the part of the game that’ll probably wear you down pretty quickly.

2. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
Keep Talking

This game is the bomb! LOL.

Seriously, though, this game is really, really fun. It’s immersive: I actually feel like I’m defusing a bomb. It has excellent progression: each level feels slightly harder and there’s a great feeling of satisfaction when we don’t explode. It has the perfect cooperative play: I can play with my wife on my laptop in bed with a single copy of the game.

I defuse a bomb on my screen that she can’t see. She has a paper manual in her hands that I can’t see. In the manual, there are descriptions on how to decode each module. The game is an exercise in communication and trust and precision of language. It is a game about developing another language to deal with the fact that there’s never enough time and always too much bomb. It is a game about two people coming together to form a single whole. Man, the more I talk about it, the more intimate it sounds.

It certainly builds a partnership. The first bomb we defused together was like an awkward first date. I was fumbling for words to describe what I was seeing on my screen, while my wife was flipping pages, trying to figure out what I could be possibly talking about. As we defused bomb after bomb, though, our words became more precise and we learned how to talk to each other, like old friends. It really is something.

And while I haven’t been the “expert” with the manual (I’ve always played as the defuser), the fact that my wife will voluntarily play this game over several sessions says to me that being the expert is as immersive, as satisfying, as fun.

The only downside is that you do require a partner to play this with. I mean, I suppose you could just play by yourself, but I’m pretty sure that would not only be little to no fun but also potentially taint future “proper” play experiences.

1. Rocket League
Rocket League

The closest game to perfection that came out this year? Rocket League.

Often, after Rocket League had been downloaded to my PS4, I would turn on my console with a plan in mind. I’d play some more of the seemingly infinite Metal Gear Solid V! I’d finally track down those last Riddler trophies in Arkham Knight! I’d play any variety of multi-million dollar AAA games that I’d been looking forward to having time to delve into!

Several hours later, I’d be equipping the new viking hat I’d unlocked for my Rocket League car, giddy and ready for just one more match, everything else forgotten. Rocket League has a way of consuming everything else, squashing other games that don’t offer the instant thrill of six out-of-control rocket cars careening around a soccer pitch. It is the single game this year that I always had to force myself to stop playing because there’s never a point when I felt done for the day or night.

It is an extraordinary game. It makes me want to play with strangers online, which normally goes against every fiber of my being. There are moments when I feel like the absolute king of the world when I fly through the air and half-intentionally strike a ball perfectly into the back of the net. And yet, and yet, when I fly through the air and miss the ball with all the grace of a Tony Romo pass, I don’t feel bad, because everyone playing Rocket League can be a hero and a goat in the same game – nay, in the same minute.

We are all Lionel Messi and we are all Ralph from the Simpsons when it comes to Rocket League. We are all winners and we are all losers. Though, if we’re playing Rocket League together, we’re really all winners.

Bonus Content for Premium Members

If you are not a Premium Member, please stop reading. You can apply for RTD Premium Membership by singing 2 of the 5 roles in of the song My Shot from the musical Hamilton with me (you may choose the roles).

  1. If I hadn’t been limiting myself to 2015, I probably would have put The Talos Principle on the list. It’s a fantastic first-person puzzle game with a story and narrator that ride the line between meta-smarminess and genuine interest.
  2. It didn’t make my list, but if you’re a game developer (or really in any creative profession), I would recommend giving The Beginner’s Guide a go. It can sometimes feel a bit inside-baseball for game developers, but it’s an interesting essay (disguised as a game) on ideas, creativity, and the push and pull of a customer base that loves and hates everything you do.
  3. Max Gentlemen is by far the UGT game of the year, which means that it is silly and ridiculous and a bit buggy, but good fun if you have someone by your side who likes that sort of thing. It’s also free, so what do you have to lose?
  4. I am continuously impressed by Zachtronics games, beginning with the mind-bending SpaceChem a few years ago. He released both Infinifactory and TIS-100 in 2015, and while I enjoyed both, I feel like I have to be in a particular mood to want to play them. In some ways, they’re both different representations of SpaceChem, for better or worse.
  5. Codenames is my board game of the year. It’s great fun at a party, supports a large range of number of players without turning chaotic, and is super easy to teach.
  6. If you choose Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr as one of the roles, you cannot choose the other as well. You must also additionally sing Aaron Burr, Sir with me as the lead in to My Shot.

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