If I were to pick a game of the year (and I’m not), it might very well be Gone Home. This game did more for storytelling in video games than anything I can think of since The Legend of Zelda. Gone Home’s gameplay is simple and direct; you wander through a house and pick things up. By investigating the things left around the house, you can piece together the past year in the life of the people who live in the house. The story is one of the most touching and relatable I have ever seen and relies on the gameplay in a surprising manner. Gone Home is available for PC.
Grand Theft Auto V
No games this year came close to GTAV in terms of critical or financial success. In the first 24 hours, GTA generated more revenue than the GDP of Turkey. In six weeks, they sold enough to stores to exceed Spain’s GDP. According to statistics, there is a 100% chance that you own three copies. (I don’t know how statistics work.) Ignoring the staggering sales numbers and the horrible, horrible torture scene, this is a great game. For the first time ever, a GTA game has had gameplay that is fun. The shooting and driving are both a joy, and the story is often as entertaining as anything out there. Add some spectacular set pieces, and you have an action game that is worth your precious time. Grand Theft Auto V is available on PS3 and Xbox 360.
Thomas Was Alone
As charming as it is fun, Thomas Was Alone wins my vote for Best Platformer That I Played This Year that Wasn’t Fez. The gameplay is simple and direct. Get the rectangles to the finish. The minimalistic graphics and straightforward gameplay would have been enough, but there is a wonderful story that ties it together in a neat, little bow. The narrator of this story brings the story to life in such an effective way. Perhaps it’s the silky British accent. I laughed. I cried. I loved this game. Thomas Was Alone is available on PC.
The Stanley Parable
Speaking of wonderful British narrators, The Stanley Parable lives and dies by the relationship the game has with its narrator. Fortunately, the narrator is almost as good as the writing, which is super good. This game is one of the most cutting satires of video game stories that I have ever seen. There are countless endings to the game (in the sense that I am not about to go and count them, but probably around 20) and each of them pokes fun of some aspect of game writing and the notion of player choice. If you have played a lot of video games, this one will resonate with you. The Stanley Parable is available on PC.
I honestly have no idea when Fez came out, but it blew my mind this year. Fez easily wins the title for Best Platformer That I Played This Year that Wasn’t Thomas Was Alone. The game plays like a classic side-scrolling platformer with a twist. The game is always 2D, but the world is 3D and you can choose how it is oriented. I played it months ago and still have no idea how to describe it. The ability to rotate the game world completely changes how the game works. As a bonus, if you are the sort of person who likes cryptography, there are more secrets buried in this game than in the Declaration of Independence. Fez is available on the Xbox 360 and PC.
With a retro, 8-bit style and some great stealth mechanics, Gunpoint was one of the most fun games I played all year. The levels are some of the best open-ended puzzles I have ever played, and the story is silly and fun. But, the selling point is the incredible mechanics of the game. You have two tools that allow you to do whatever you want. The Bullfrog Hypertrousers allow you to jump great distances, stick to walls, and survive any fall. The Crosslink allows you to rewire electrical systems, so the motion detector in the next room won’t sound an alarm, but will instead open the vault door for you. By using the trousers and Crosslink together, you can do anything. And, it is just so much fun. Gunpoint is available on PC.
Antichamber takes some time before you are used to it, and it never really allows you to get comfortable. The game looks like a first-person shooter, even going as far as giving you a gun-like thing, but unlike Portal, which is another incredible puzzle game, you never face an enemy or do anything aggressive at all. The world of Antichamber is a non-Euclidian environment with no antagonist or guidance. There is an exit that you are trying to reach, but no story to lead you there. You just want to solve the puzzles, because they are puzzling. One of the simplest ones involves a corridor with a choice. There are stairs leading up and stairs leading down. If you go up, after a few twists and turns, you wind up right back where you started. If you go down, after a few twists and turns, you wind up right back where you started. There might be some deep meaning about the nature of life or the notion of quantum mechanics at the macro level, but I just love a good puzzle game, and this one is great. Antichamber is available on PC.
LEGO Marvel Superheroes
If you subscribe to the notion that video games should be fun, you need to play LEGO Marvel Superheroes. The gameplay is simple but enjoyable, and the world is just lousy with collectables and extra objectives. The plot is a silly bit of fun involving almost every Marvel character and a threat from deep space. Spoiler: It’s Galactus. Like all of the LEGO Games, there is a wonderful balance between dumb jokes and gameplay. It is also self-aware in a truly surprising way. For example, I got an achievement called “Don’t I Know You?” for teaming up Captain America with The Human Torch. This is a must play for anyone looking for a family-friendly game that an adult might want to play, as well. LEGO Marvel Superheroes is available on almost everything.
There are people who will tell you that this isn’t a game. I understand their point, but they are wrong. Sure, there are no enemies, no way to fail, and no story, but there is a beautiful and engaging world to explore and discover in a way that only works in video games. The graphics are retro and simple, so it is hard to argue that it looks stunning, but somehow when you are standing on top of a mountain looking down at a serene meadow or through a lush forest, the world can be gorgeous. To top it off, the music in the game is made by the elements around you. The notes from the wind stacked on the melody of the trees, and the sound of birds flying by build to a lovely experience. Proteus is a celebration of nature and change. Proteus is available on PC.
The best description of Ridiculous Fishing is right there in the title. The premise is simple. You are a fisherman. You cast your lure and dodge fish as it sinks, so you can get as deep as possible. Once it hits a fish it starts to come back up, so you try to hit every fish you can on the way up. Once you get to the surface, you throw all the fish you caught into the air and shoot them. If you don’t see how that’s fun, I don’t want to be friends with you. If you have an iPad and have ever thought about playing a game on it, this is the one to get. Ridiculous Fishing is available on IOS.
Somehow, Firaxis Games managed to fit the best game of last year onto an iPad. XCOM is a deep strategy game with a punishing tactical level, as well. You are the commander of a worldwide organization dedicated to protecting the world from alien threats. As such, you have control over the finances and priorities of the entire organization. Do you get enough scientists to research all the alien tech you recovered, or do you hire more soldiers and jets to fight the alien menace? Additionally, you lead the troops on the front line. Do you rush to try to save the civilians on the battlefield or advance slowly to keep your soldiers alive? Every decision has consequences. The fact that they managed to cram the entire game onto the iPad is impressive to say the least. XCOM is available on PC, Xbox 360, PS3, and IOS
Thirty Flights of Loving
Thirty Flights of Loving is the video game version of a short story. The whole thing takes about a half an hour to complete and is one of the most interesting story games I have played. I could go on about the meaning of character in games or the importance of ambiguity in a story that you experience the way you experience a video game. Instead, I will say that this simple, little game about a group of thieves was one of the most beautiful and touching gaming experiences I had all year. Thirty Flights of Loving is available on PC.
One of the hardest things to do is reinvent and modernize a series. Tomb Raider hasn’t been a commercial success in years and seemed to have passed the torch to the Uncharted series. So, when this new version came out, I was skeptical to say the least. What Tomb Raider has done is learn the lessons from more modern games and emerged as the best action/adventure/Indiana Jones game I have ever played. Every part of this game succeeded completely. This is exactly what you want from a massive AAA game. Tomb Raider is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.
Board games are great, but playing them when you are all alone is just depressing. Pandemic on the iPad allowed me to play a fantastic game without announcing to the world that I am a sad, friendless wretch. This is the most impressive board to video game translation I have ever seen. You and up to three friends (Who are you kidding?) must work together to try to stop the outbreak of four pandemic diseases across the world. You will lose. Badly. And then, you start to figure the game out and almost win. This is exactly what you want from a board game. It rewards clever play and is a fun challenge. Pandemic is available as a board game and on IOS.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
This is a strange one. Brothers is a co-op game for one player. You control two brothers at the same time, one with the left side of a controller and the other with the right side. Trying to steer two separate characters at the same time leads to some hilarious moments. For a while, my playthrough was the touching tale of two brothers on a mystic quest and suffering from crippling vertigo. The story is a thing of beauty and is almost entirely about the relationship between these two. Brothers is available on Xbox 360 and PS3.
I recently picked up Kentucky Route Zero and have played it for about twenty minutes, but I can tell that it is going to be a fantastic adventure game/art piece. I can’t tell you much more, because twenty minutes. I also was gifted a copy of Kerbal Space Program. Thanks, Wade! After a few hours, I can tell you that it is a massive game of realistic space exploration. You build rockets and send them into orbit or off to other worlds. I have blown up more rockets than have reached anything like space, but this is going to eat up a ton of my time. Both of these are available on PC.