My Frankengame of 2015: Gleanings From The Morass

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Last year I did a Frankengames of 2014, picking the best bits of many games to make a Game of the Year, mainly because nothing individually took my fancy. But this year has been ridiculous, with every week bringing out amazing new games. Here’s a stupid statistic; there are 282 pages of games on Steam. Roughly 125 of those are from 2015. What an insane year.

Given that figure, it’s not surprising that there were tons of games that most of the press didn’t notice, or simply didn’t have time to play, or had forgotten about because they were on Early Access. Of the latter, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Prison Architect and Kerbal Space Program made it onto too few GOTY lists, yet they were superb genre-busters. Dying Light was forgotten when MGSV came along. Strange games like Tengami, Apotheon, Mushroom 11, 868-Hack, N++ and Citizens of Earth appeared and disappeared on PC… and no-one noticed. Meanwhile, Darkest Dungeon got a ton of hype… and featured on exactly no GOTY lists, as everyone rapidly stopped enjoying its sadistic, troubling structures. What an odd bloody year.

For me, it wasn’t a great year. Sure, standouts like The Witcher III and MGSV came along – but the smaller games which normally carry me between the flagship titles didn’t do the job for me. So again, I’m scraping together the corpse-parts of a hundred games to make my ideal game – my perfect monster!

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Brain: Soma

I don’t typically like horror games and the justification for Soma’s monsters worked in universe, but still felt a bit silly compared with how smart and interesting many of the game’s scenarios were. I suspect that the developers noticed that too, as they stripped out the monsters in almost all of the game’s better puzzles – presumably because the challenges were hard enough without having to dodge things that don’t like you looking at them.

Soma takes what could have been a System Shock pastiche at the bottom of the ocean and turns it into something very special, by repeatedly building up its arguments about the value of different types of life, human and otherwise. It’s probably the smartest written game of the year.

Starting in the modern day, in an experimental brain-scanning lab? Interrogating a virtual copy of a security officer in an a virtual environment, doing just enough to keep him? Having a protagonist strong enough to finish the project, but not smart enough to understand – despite having it explained repeatedly – what the consequences of doing this are leads to several believably bleak moments, that really make you feel the horror of the situation better than any of the twisted monsters.

Spare part: Her Story. By contrast, Her Story was the smartest conceit, planning and the smartest, most accessible structure – I just didn’t think it was that fun or interactive. YMMV.

Spare part: Infinifactory. Zachtronics does keep making the same amazing logic game, but it gets better every time. This one was funny, dark and impossibly tough on my baby-brain.

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Fancy Haircut: Downwell

Downwell was an extremely-simple pixel shooter shifted to a vertical plane that was punishingly hard. It’s my Overhyped Game of the Year. I can’t believe anyone wasted many words on it – but then some people have a short attention span and have their critical faculties elided by repetitive randomised reward mechanics (see also, more crudely: Candy Crush.) If you find this exciting, just go and play Super Meat Boy on Vita and remind yourself what a well-made Fucking Hard game is like.

Spare part: Undertale. Undertale comes a close second for a game that received lots of hype from influencers (indie devs and press) but which just wasn’t much fun for me. I suspect that’s because I can’t stand JRPGs (apart from Lost Odyssey), don’t have nostalgia for the old-school variants thereof, and I didn’t have the time to push through my distaste. But I could see the humour here, as far as I got into it.

Spare part: Axiom Verge. A great metroidvania title – but riffing on a familiar formula so directly shouldn’t win you awards. Gamble!

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Heart: The Witcher III: Wild Hunt

Obviously, this year The Witcher III was by far the best traditional game of the year, easily beating out Fallout 3++, that unfinished Metal Gear sandbox that just borrowed mechanics from every other game, and that Cthulhu Dark Souls mod where they forgot the script (Bloodbath? Bondbourne? Buggerbognor?) It combined combat where player skill and planning could counterbalance a punishing monster levelling curve, some really wonderfully-scripted scenarios that could be approached at any point, and a beautiful drawn, mapped and animated world.

Disclaimer: it was also the only game I got a credit on this year, for consultancy, which is super-unusual, but despite putting in a ton of time on it before release, it’s the game I’ve played most this year and find myself returning to.

Spare part: Dying Light. A nice, big open world that was a joy to explore in single or multiplayer. Such a huge step up from the Dead Island games.

Spare part: Metal Gear Solid V. Huge, odd and boring in many ways, but it has some wonderful sandbox set-ups for lovers of stealth and killing.

Spare part: Bloodborne. Dark Souls dolled up in Cthulhu gladrags, but by far the best combat of the year, with its transforming weaponry. Terrifyingly tough.

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Tongue: Westerado: Double-barrelled

Westerado was a solid Legend of Zelda-like, with a nice Western twist, save for one thing; at any time, during any conversation, you can pull your gun on someone. You don’t shoot it (though of course you can), but you can just point it at them, or even cock it. It’s a mechanic that’s followed through smartly throughout the game, accompanied by a less-important – hats-as-lives gimmick, which lets you shoot other people’s hats off and catch them on your head.

Different characters react in different ways – sometimes crying, sometimes pulling their own guns, and sometimes just asking you to go on and shoot them. In this cartoon Wild West, it’s a mechanic begging to be be rustled.

Spare part: Hard West. The serious wound turning into a boon mechanic works wonderfully in this XCOM-style game and needs stealing.

Spare part: Duskers. Both this and last year’s Deadnauts are abandoned spaceship exploration sims, which riff off horror movies really well, using an extremely-mediated control system and interference to generate terror. It works.

Spare part: Mushroom 11. An original, unique flowing/erasing movement mechanic that wasn’t matched in originality by the story, look or enemies.

Spare part: Crypt of the Necrodancer. Comfortably the best rhythm-roguelike there has ever been. Amazingly replayability and style. My rhythm’s so bad, I have to play as the Bard…

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Funny bone: Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be.

Games have not done funny well – the last outrageously-funny one I encountered was Time Gentlemen, Please, and the developers seem intent on not doing funny games again. But this choose-your-adventure by Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comic fame) is a hilarious reworking of Hamlet where you get to be Hamlet, Ophelia, Hamlet Sr. (briefly) or even Ryan North, the author. It’s very well made, written and has a great, natural comedic voice.

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Skin: Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

My experience was pretty ruined by ignorance of the run button, but this was a uniquely beautiful recreation of a good-sized area of English countryside. I’d happily walk around it again in VR, without the floating story orbs. The story was good, the acting solid Radio 4, and the music was superb – it was just a bit of a linear plod, like Dear Esther.

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Frankenstein: Hand of Fate

(Best antagonist, obv!) I had to check if Hand of Fate was released this year, but I’m in the clear. This was simultaneously the best digital card game of the year, and had the best antagonist, the wonderfully animated and scripted dealer. 

As you play the card game, and he turns cards, shuffles with magic, and stares at you over his face-drape, he rarely repeats anything, even several hours in. He radiates menace, through both threats and flattery, before settling down to a guardedly-avuncular manner. He initially pretends to take his losses lightly, but his tone changes as you keep playing. Sure his accent slips occasionally, but it just improves the otherworldly air.

Without him, this was a good card game mingled with a weak Xbox 360 era combat game you could easily cheese. With him, it became a battle of wills. 

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Frank Jr.: Metamorphabet

That is, the best game I played with my child. Beating out the Toca Boca games, which I love but which are getting slightly formulaic, Vectorpark’s latest Thing has been filling a hole in life since the last IGF. My child, at 14 months, is quite happy tapping on the screen and morphing letters into all sorts of other things. The amount of labour that Patrick Smith has put into every element is absurd – there’s a guitar, for example, that appears on just one screen for a few seconds, but which has been programmed to have working strings. 

Spare part: Toca Band. Just an amazingly tuneful, characterful and intelligible music generator, with a really catchy tune and beautiful, weird animation.

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Tentacles: Blood Bowl 2

Yes, I have a problem. This was just a very good conversion of a tabletop Fantasy American Football game I played as a child, which I love. This made it accessible and I keep meaning to go back to it.

Spare part: Vermintide. Left4Dead with Skaven. I need to play much, much more of this game.

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Appendix: Citybuilders

In other words, the genre that is most in need of a kick up the arse. Endless Legend has shown 4X games where they need to go (something Beyond Earth studiously ignored), but citybuilders have been damned by the ancient heritage of the Sim City games, which promised ever deeper simulation with the same level of feature creep obsession as Football Manager. Cities: Skylines was a perfectly pretty sim (even if that tilt-shift trick is going to get old soon) and it’s amazing that a small team made it, but imaginative or interesting it wasn’t. See also Banished, which concealed a tiny array of building options behind a high difficulty, and the recent Anno games.

Spare part: Racing. Racing games have been so stagnant and dull for so many years that I’m amazed that they keep selling. It’s probably the only mainstream genre that pretends to aim for pure simulation, and can just sell itself on more shinies each time. I find the DLC, advertising-saturated, bimboid Forza games particularly egregious.

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The apparently best games I didn’t give a chance because we have a baby are Lovers in A Dangerous Spacetime, Rocket League, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Regency Solitaire, Splatoon, Super Mario Maker, Invisible Inc, Life is Strange, Tales from the Borderlands, Until Dawn, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Minecraft: Story Mode… One day I’ll get to try them…

 

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