Push to Smart Water Cooler: Game of the Year 2015

We’re back to discuss our favorite games of 2015. What made your list?

Full transcript below the cut.

STACEY: Welcome to Push to Smart’s Game of the Year 2015! Woo!

JAYLEE: Woohoo!

STACEY: Recorded in 2016 on Valentine’s Day! Woo!

JAYLEE: Yeah! (laughs)

STACEY: Today we’re looking back on 2015, the hits and misses.

JAYLEE: Something that I find really interesting about last year is how the big games of the year, you had these swan songs for these franchises like Batman: Arkham Knight, Metal Gear Solid 5, The Witcher 3, and then you also had these new indie games that kind of came out of nowhere and became these big critical darlings, like Undertale, Sunset, Read Only Memories and games like Life is Strange. Which, not necessarily indie, but I don’t think it was expected to have the kind of impact it did.

STACEY: I think it was definitely bigger than it was expected, but it also did have a lot of quote-unquote “indie sensibilities” to it.

JAYLEE: Yes.

STACEY: It’s definitely kind of going for that aesthetic. For me, 2015— I guess as you’re saying that, I’m nodding in agreement, but I didn’t really feel that. 2015 for me in games, I kind of had it a distance. One, I was really busy with my day job, and then it seems like whenever I’d peek back in, I would just be really disappointed. (laughs)

JAYLEE: (laughs)

STACEY: Like the big things that kind of hangs over last year for me is Silent Hills being cancelled. That kind of colored everything, because Silent Hills was the one game I was really looking forward to. And it’s like, what’s the point now?

JAYLEE: (laughs)

STACEY: There’s no magic left in this world.

JAYLEE: Aww! Everything is pain.

STACEY: Yeah. And a lot of those big games, the swan songs, I didn’t get to play, I didn’t play a lot of the indie games, a lot of the games I did play were just aggressively bad.

JAYLEE: Aww!

STACEY: So 2015, not a great year.

JAYLEE: Yeah.

STACEY: For me. (laughs)

JAYLEE: I know I played a lot of games in 2015, but the ones that really stick with me, there aren’t that many of them.

STACEY: Yeah.

JAYLEE: And a lot of games I just didn’t get to because my computer is a piece of garbage, so I didn’t get to play Sunset or Undertale, or all of these adorable indie games at are only available on the computer. But I did play Batman: Arkham Knight and Metal Gear Solid 5.

STACEY: And I saw they were on your list with some caveats. Did you want to talk about them?

JAYLEE: Kind of. For example, for Batman: Arkham Knight, the story was atrocious. I hated it.

STACEY: (laughs) That’s a theme this year, I feel like.

JAYLEE: It completely is the theme this year. This year was not the year of the story. So when I was playing the AAA games like Rise of the Tomb Raider, Batman, Metal Gear Solid 5, I had so much fun playing them, but when it came to the story I was just kind of like, ugh.

STACEY: Yeah, it definitely felt like a lot of the seams were showing. There’s a lot of talk—especially with AAA games, but I feel like a lot with the indie games too—there’s a sense of “it’s a good story for a video game.” And I felt like one of the feelings I had this year playing games—the games that I got to that were story-heavy—there was a sense that maybe that’s not good enough anymore.

JAYLEE: Like I said, Batman and, as we talked about, Rise of the Tomb Raider, which I definitely was planning on putting on my game of the year list… But then I played the Baba Yaga DLC and everything that we were discussing just kept echoing in my head, and I was like, oh, I can’t do this anymore.

STACEY: Aww.

JAYLEE: But yeah, Arkham Knight, I hated the story, but driving around in the Batmobile and blowing stuff up was A) beautiful, and B) a lot of fun, even though it felt like nothing Batman should be.

STACEY: Okay, that was my question because the Batman tank seemed very un-Batman. It’s one of the big complaints I read.

JAYLEE: It’s like the most un-Batman thing, but it’s very fun. (laughs)

STACEY: (laughs) Okay. Fair enough.

JAYLEE: So if they want to make a tank game with those beautiful particle effects, I will be onboard. Metal Gear Solid 5, I played that game a lot. I mean… (sighs) They’re always fun to play, the Metal Gear Solid games. And at best their stories are just convoluted. At worst, it’s just horrifically problematic. It was just this balancing act between really fun gameplay and really either bad story like Batman or just story that didn’t really work, like Rise of the Tomb Raider.

STACEY: Okay.

JAYLEE: But that being said, there were some standouts this year. One of my favorite games this year was Until Dawn. I had so much fun playing that ridiculous little horror game, and it didn’t really take itself as seriously as the type of cinematic gaming experiences that came before it like Heavy Rain or Beyond.

STACEY: It felt like a David Cage game without all the baggage.

JAYLEE: It really did. “Here’s this idea, but we actually want you to have fun.” (laughs)

STACEY: (laughs)

JAYLEE: “We actually want you to enjoy our game.” So I just enjoyed it. I played the crap out of it. I highly recommend it. It’s probably cheaper now, so pick it up. We have a Water Cooler about it.

STACEY: Yeah, you played it… You got all the endings, right?

JAYLEE: I did. (laughs)

STACEY: Yeah, that’s pretty high praise. I guess if the topic is story, one game I played that I was looking forward to this year and that I really enjoyed was Her Story, which is an FMV game in 2015. But it’s written by Sam Barlow, who wrote Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which is one of my very favorite games. And at first it doesn’t— It shares very superficial similarities with Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. If you’ve played Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, one of the standout pieces are those sequences with Dr. Kauffman where you speak in the first person or interact in the first person with a psychiatrist. And here, everything you see are these FMV videos of a woman talking to the camera giving testimony about some mystery, and the objective of the game is to unravel that mystery. And the way that you do it— I didn’t really know what to expect going in, but it was really interesting. You open this interface. It’s a fake old-school PC with a search bar that’s pre-populated with the word “murder” and five videos to click. But the key is, it tells you this is five of so many other videos, but you can only pull up those five at a time. So the goal of the game becomes kind of guessing the correct keywords to get the right videos to piece together the story. There’s no real— I kept expecting some kind of “win state” to emerge. Like okay—

JAYLEE: Like the credits to start rolling?

STACEY: Well, actually I was expecting more like a victory lap, like “Oh, you gotta get her here, and then you’ll win!” Instead I realized I’d seen all the videos, I got my little instant messenger to say I’m ready to go, and then the credits rolled. (laughs) Which at first I wasn’t quite sure what to do that with that, but I found the experience of trying to piece together this mystery and trying to guess the relationship between these videos to be really interesting. It’s a really quick game to play so I really recommend it. You’ll probably only play through it once, and there is a way to game the system so you don’t have to actually have the guess the keywords, but I recommend guessing the keywords because it’s more fun that way. But yeah, I really enjoyed it.

JAYLEE: That’s another one of those games that I’ve been meaning to play but forgot to.

STACEY: Yeah, it’s really quick. I put it off for forever, and once I played it, I think it was like 40 minutes.

JAYLEE: Oh wow.

STACEY: Yeah, it’s really quick.

JAYLEE: One game that we can agree was a standout definitely put the story a bit on the backburner and put a spotlight on the characters. And that was Tales from the Borderlands!

STACEY: Yay! This game was so good!

JAYLEE: It was so good. It was so much fun. It just— There’s so much joy in that game.

STACEY: Yeah! This kind of ties into another game I’m going to talk about, but I think one of the themes this year was just joy and being able to play a game and see that the people that made it loved making it. That they love that you’re playing it, and they just want you to fall in love as much as they have. And I found that I was willing to forgive a lot of technical problems with the games if they had that attitude.

JAYLEE: Yeah.

STACEY: And Tales from the Borderlands is definitely one of those where it did have some of those same Telltale strains were kind of showing at the seams, where some of the feedback wasn’t quite what you expected it to be, but it was just so much fun and it was so well-written.

JAYLEE: So memorable.

STACEY: Yeah! It’s just like, you’re willing to forgive a target not lining up or the right buttons not reacting like they’re supposed to when these incredibly silly scenarios were spiraling out of control with you.

JAYLEE: I just want to hug that game. (laughs)

STACEY: Yeah! (laughs)

JAYLEE: I love that Telltale showed that it still had a sense of humor, and I loved the way that it kind of ridiculously tried to give narrative reasons for shooter mechanics. Like, that stands out as something that I just think is brilliant, and I love it. And so, Tales from the Borderlands I know you can get for cheap because it’s almost always on sale.

STACEY: Right.

JAYLEE: So definitely pick that up.

STACEY: We are testament to the fact that you don’t need to know anything about Borderlands to play that game. (laughs)

JAYLEE: Exactly. (laughs)

STACEY: And really enjoy bumbling around with this NPCs in the background of a greater story.

JAYLEE: My favorite game of the year was a shock to me. (laughs) And it was… I really got it just because of what it was talking about and I was like, I’ll give it a try, I’ll wander around, and then after a little while I’ll just be done with it. And that was Fallout 4. And it’s the first Fallout game that I’ve completed. I tried Fallout 3 back when it came out, but I think there were fire-breathing ants that just ruined my enjoyment.

STACEY: (laughs)

JAYLEE: So I didn’t get far. I think it’s just the timing of it. This story kind of came into my life just at the time that I needed it, where I really related to the character I created and so every decision had this added weight to it, and it felt like there was less of a buffer between me and the experience happening on the screen, so your mileage may vary. But I loved it. I loved my character, the side characters, I loved the way the story went and the game was huge. There were so many different side quests. They never felt like a burden, like I had to do every side quest. I played some Xenoblade Chronicles X as well, and that game has a ridiculous amount of side quest,s and they did feel like a burden. But I don’t know, Fallout 4 just worked for me and I loved it. So what was your favorite game of the year? I think I know.

STACEY: I think everybody knows.

JAYLEE: (laughs)

STACEY: It’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. I fucking love this game. And a lot of it goes into the same kind of thing that goes with Tales from the Borderlands, in that it is just delightful, and delighted that you are delighted. And it’s especially… I didn’t play Unity all the way through until recently. And part of the problem I had with Unity was it was super bloated, it was just full of too much stuff to do, it was super serious and up its own butt, and it was kind of mean-spirited about everything. And Assassin’s Creed Syndicate kind of strips a lot of those pointless side quests away, it takes out the multi-player. A little bit to its detriment, it trims a lot of the fat with the customization. But most of all it doesn’t take itself seriously. And it presents these characters that are so likeable. And every sequence I’ve finished I was just so excited that nobody had died to further Jacob’s pain.

JAYLEE: I know! I kept being like, oh, it’s gonna happen here. Oh god.

STACEY: (laughs) Yeah. Because at first I was like… When they announced it, Evie was in it, and she wasn’t on any of the other promos, and it’s like, okay, she’s gonna die. And then they introduce Henry, and it’s like, well, if Evie can’t die then clearly he’s gonna die. But nobody dies! It introduces a lot of seemingly very small changes that do a lot to move this game forward. Like just the introduction of the grappling hook completely changes how you traverse this world. And I was really worried that it was going to somehow impede on my parkour climbing. Which to me, that’s essential to the Assassin’s Creed experience. It’s like, I don’t want to ride things, I want to climb things. But it really changes the way you think about this space, and how you traverse horizontally and vertically, and it kind of gets to the heart of what it is to be an assassin. Which the series has been grappling with for awhile, since it wants you to be super secretive and stealthy and get-in-get-out, but then it also wants you to stand there and Errol Flynn with a bunch of guys. And the introduction of the grappling hook helps you get-in-get-out, and really moves the story along and really ups the pace. And it’s just so fun! I loved it so much.

JAYLEE: I think that’s what’s so great about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, is that it really stands out against all these grimdark games that came out this year that we’ve mentioned throughout the episode. And just playing Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, I was just so tickled throughout most of it. And I was just kind of like, this is lovely, and I’m having a lovely time.

STACEY: Like, there’s so many small details that so go far to set the tone and to set it apart from the other grimdark games of the year and also the other grimdark games that came before it. Like, if you go into stealth mode in the middle of the street, an NPC on occasion will go to you and say, “I can still see you!” It’s like, stuff like that. I think that would be a problem if they did it in all the games because that shatters that feeling of “I’m in stealth mode… Does this mean anybody can see me?” But here it works because it’s showing, you know, we’re here to have fun. “This whole thing is very silly. You have a new predator ability in Victorian England. We know that’s not realistic. Let’s have fun.”

JAYLEE: Yeah. But keeping our cephalopod theme of last year….

STACEY: (laughs)

JAYLEE: (laughs) The absolute best game—and we both agreed on this—would be Splatoon.

STACEY: Mhmm. Splatoooooon! Talk about joy.

JAYLEE: It was so much fun. It redefined the shooter genre to be about fun instead of instead of mean-spiritedness, a lot of the time. It’s kind of jarring to from Splatoon to say, Star Wars Battlefront. It’s just like night and day. It’s just so fun, it’s so easy to pick up.

STACEY: Everything in Splatoon feels very deliberate, and I’m also really impressed with the way that Nintendo has continued to support it throughout the year.

JAYLEE: Yeah.

STACEY: Like, any other publisher would have made all those new maps at least $5. Apiece!

JAYLEE: Yeah!

STACEY: And Nintendo just kept loading them for free, and just kept encouraging the community to keep coming back and to be welcoming of new players. There was a great— I wasn’t online for this, but I was listening to the Experience Points podcast and they were mentioning going on during the Christmas season and seeing messages like, “Let’s be nice to new players!  A lot of people are getting it for Christmas!” And it’s just like, it’s such a positive experience and it’s really designed around being welcoming and just having fun together.

JAYLEE: And I think this is very evident in things like the Splat Fests, where you have these ridiculous and fun and silly, like, “Are you Team Cat or are you Team Dog?”

STACEY: Team Dog.

JAYLEE: “Are you Team Rollercoaster or are you Team Water Slide?”

STACEY: (laughs)

JAYLEE: Every decision that they made in making Splatoon is all to reinforce the kind of lighthearted fun of the game. And it shines through and it’s so endearing.

JAYLEE: Last episode we asked what your Games of the Years… Games of the Year? Game of the Year… Picks(!) were (laughs), and a lot of Undertale.

STACEY: Yeah! I have a secret. I didn’t like Undertale.

JAYLEE: You didn’t like Undertale?

STACEY: I didn’t like Undertale! I’m sorry! (laughs)

JAYLEE: (laughs) What is it about it?

STACEY: I just…

JAYLEE: It just wasn’t your cup of tea?

STACEY: I guess not. I think it was very well-written, I think the soundtrack is beautiful, but the bullet gameplay that it’s centered around is really fucking annoying! And when you’re doing the same kind of thing over and over again because your fingers keep spasming or whatever because there’s no strategy, you hit a point of diminishing returns with the humor. And as I was playing it I would hit this point where I was like, I don’t have time for this; I could be doing something else. I read a lot of really interesting think pieces about it and about the way that you can go through as either a pacifist befriending these monsters or killing them in the traditional gaming style. And the way that actually plays out to me was not as innovative as I think I was expecting it to be. It plays out a lot like what Bioware has been doing for years, which is: find right choice, spam button until the numbers under the hood reach a certain point, and you are now friends. And it feels very manipulative, and not altogether rewarding once you see that system come out. So for me it was kind of like, okay, this is what this game’s about. I’m kind of over it and don’t have time for this. Clearly I’m a minority. (laughs)

JAYLEE: I still want to play it.

STACEY: In the comments, it’s gotten a lot of other Game of the Year lists. It’s amazing that one person put it together.

JAYLEE: Oh yeah. It’s just been like a phenomenon.

STACEY: Yeah.

JAYLEE: Kim Caimann said that there were several of indie game standouts, but it was mostly Undertale and Read Only Memories. Because they had a lot of representation, which is something I’ve been reading about a lot, which makes me want to play them even more!

STACEY: Mhmm.

JAYLEE: And I’m glad that a game like Undertale, that has gotten so huge, does have all this representation in it.

STACEY: Mhmm. Oh, Kim also mentioned Ori and the Blind Forest. That’s a game I have and have not gotten to yet.

JAYLEE: Same.

STACEY: So good to hear some recommendations for that. Jay louis says the top game was Sunless Sea. I’m not sure I’m familiar with that one.

JAYLEE: I’ve never heard of that. But now I’ll have to check it out.

STACEY: Yeah, I think I gotta to check that out now.

JAYLEE: Bleeters was against the thoughts that I put forth in the last episode, which was that 2015 wasn’t really the year of the story. And they point to Tales from the Borderlands, Life is Strange, Dreamfall Chapter, Witcher 3, and of course Undertale. I’ve played Tales from the Borderlands and Life is Strange, and I’ve also played a lot of really bad games this year. So I guess that’s probably why my view is skewed on that matter.

STACEY: Mhmm. It’s good to know there’s still some out there. Katherine Henderson also gives a shout-out to Life is Strange, which is… That’s one we didn’t quite mention, which I think definitely does deserve credit for what it did right, even though in its aping of Telltale’s formula, it also trips over the finish line. It plays with the formula in interesting ways, as far as removing that timer and making the experience less about the tension of choosing something in a set amount of time versus seeing all the consequences and really considering what they mean.

JAYLEE: Yeah…. (laughs)

STACEY: (laughs)

JAYLEE: I’m sorry, I just still can’t get behind the ending. And that just kind of like… It just pooped in my eye. I don’t know. It was just…

STACEY: What a vivid metaphor.

JAYLEE: It was unpleasant, Stacey. (laughs)

STACEY: (laughs) That’s okay. That’s how I feel about Tomb Raider, so.

JAYLEE: So that does it for our year. Now we want to know what you’re most excited about for 2016. Really let us have it, let us know, because I want to be excited this year. So let us know in the comments what you think, and of course don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date on all of our latest episodes and Water Cooler discussions.

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