2015 was a strange and not altogether good year for games (among other things). But, if nothing else, it offered up so many great little gems that I had to stop myself from letting this year’s roundup grow to unmanageable proportions.
Last year, I chose to present my end-of-year list in the form of a Gertrude Stein-esque modernist poem. It was a fun exercise, but I’d rather not repeat myself. So, this year I was inspired to my favourite games through the medium of black-and-white photography, trying to capture a sense of what they’re like in a single image. I wanted to frame the images in a way that made what’s in them feel both alien and familiar, like real places from a long time ago which can only be accessed through something highly mediated, like a photograph. That’s how games often feel to me.
Many of the games in this year’s list are rooted deeply in the player’s relationship to the landscape itself (Vertex Meadow, Orchids to Dusk and Panoramical to name a few), and lent themselves well to a sort of nature photography (or maybe “naturalistic photography” would be more appropriate). Many still offered up plenty of intriguingly composed figures who, regardless of a general lack of photorealism, breathed a lot of life into the visual aspect of the games. But, while I’m fond of all the scenes I captured, these are only frozen, and highly interpreted moments. I really encourage you to get to know all these games, and I’ve provided links to all of them (click on the images!) so that you easily can.
I must stress that much like last year’s list, nothing about this list should suggest any particular order or preference. For that matter, I don’t mean for this list to be read as in any way definitive. Really, this is less a “list” and more a haphazard, but timely, pile of games I happen to find very interesting–and I hope you will too.
Some of these games you’ll probably recognize, and some of them you might not. It’s important to me, in all things, to present games of different tastes and scopes equitably (but not necessarily equally.) I like to think these things can coexist, and that if we build a creative ecosystem in which fringe experimentation can happen decoupled from a reliance on meritocracy and popular appeal, it will make all games that much richer.
But enough about that. Here are some games from the past year I consider to be outstanding:
Redshift & Portalmetal by Dr. micha cárdenas
Redshift & Portalmetal by Dr. micha cárdenas combines hypertext poetry, video and photography to create an arresting science-fiction exploration of life, love and finding a sense of home in the face of climate devastation. Dr. cárdenas has also created a live performance version of Redshift & Portalmetal.
Mystery Tapes by Strangethink
Mystery Tapes by Strangethink drops you into an intriguing pile of VHS tapes—640 to be exact—and three floating CRTs. By mixing and matching 3 tapes to play at a time, you can create your own colourful, digital video garden.
Weave by Taut Nerve
Weave by Taut Nerve is a gorgeously animated, short point-and-click game about the intersecting nature of people’s choices and the illusion of complete agency.
Oneiric Gardens by Lilith Zone (Cicada Marionette)
Oneiric Gardens by Lilith Zone (Cicada Marionette) is a whimsical dream-world that puts into question the construction of the self through nostalgia and media consumption, contrasting the clutter of dreams and memories with the emptiness of escape. Also, there’s a really big slug.
Way to Go by Studio AATOAA
Way to Go, developed by Studio AATOAA and produced by the National Film Board of Canada is a stunning third-person experience about talking a relaxing stroll through the woods. This game makes use of some really impressive 360-degree video capture and animation to construct a really compelling virtual space.
Dropsy by Tendershoot, A Jolly Corpse
Dropsy by Tendershoot, A Jolly Corpse is a tragicomic, classic point-and-click game about a clown who wants nothing more than to help people. A beautifully surreal pixel-art aesthetic, a deceptively wry sense of humour and a surprisingly touching story make Dropsy one of my favourites for 2015.
Orchids to Dusk by Pol Clarissou
Orchids to Dusk by Pol Clarissou is a sweetly melancholic, musical and photogenic game about crash-landing in an alien environment and, in a sense, becoming one with its strange and entrancing nature.
16 Rooms 16 Doors 16 Colors by everythingstaken
16 Rooms 16 Doors 16 Colors by everythingstaken is an in-your-face, assertive montage of action-painting-like frames made in Stephen Lavelle’s Flickgame tool. I couldn’t help but be struck by the surprising energy and movement contained in this string of abstract imagery.
SURREALISTa by Gigoia Studios
SURREALISTa by Gigoia Studios is a pretty and heartfelt game based on the works of Giorgio de Chirico, founding artist of the Metaphysical school of art and grandfather of the Surrealist movement. This lovingly-crafted game makes use of common motifs in de Chirico’s painting to create elaborate puzzles that encourage exploration of these 3D Metaphysical landscapes.
The Midas Project by eoeoeo344
The Midas Project by eoeoeo344 is a fascinating game about the nature of existence, free will and knowledge and the dangers of technocracy, presented with wry and thoughtful prose and an undeniably cool assemblage-style aesthetic.
The Beginner’s Guide by Davey Wreden
The Beginner’s Guide by Davey Wreden is a contemplative game—presented as a catalogue of works by the fictional developer Coda and narrated by Wreden himself—that interrogates the creative process, the impetus to create and the value of external validation. The game, through Coda, respectably engages with a legacy of experimental and alternative development which attempts to resist compromising for popular taste, and the sacrifices to emotional health that often entails.
Astaeria by Lycaon Talks (Emma Lugo)
Astaeria by Lycaon Talks (Emma Lugo), rather ingenious in its simplicity, is 3D interactive poetry experience in which the player explores a minimalist room full of procedurally-generated blocks while, line by line, a poem appears superimposed on the screen. Astaeria manages to be relaxing, touching, at times very affecting.
Direction by Kristian Kronstrand
Direction by Kristian Kronstrand tells the story of an abrupt breakup and the search for closure in a style that might be described as “Lynchian.” With surreal imagery, an unusually oblique use of camera control, and a posterized monochrome aesthetic reminiscent of comic books, Direction takes a story as old as time to strange, dark and psychodramatic places that left me with plenty to think about.
Strawberry Cubes by Loren Schmidt
Strawberry Cubes by Loren Schmidt is a haunting game about a girl trapped in a nightmarish version of her grandmother’s home. Strawberry Cubes became a Halloween favourite for me with its glitchy and gothic look, opaque control scheme, discombobulating presentation of 2D space and symbolism that ranges from goofy to grotesque to strangely melancholy.
Homesickened by Snapman
Homesickened by Snapman recalls Vaporwave and synthpop ’80s callback aesthetics with its beautiful, neon 4-colour CGA DOS look. Presented as an old-fashioned 3D point-and-click game with deliberately plodding controls to boot, Homesickened takes the notion that “you can never really go home again” to heart with its merciless evisceration of nostalgia.
The Stranger by svblm
The Stranger by svblm is an adorable low-poly 3D game that recalls the 3D style of the early-2000’s, with a touch more refinement. This delightful adventure game, made for a senior project at Carleton University, is all about cavorting around a magical, tropical island, making sassy animal friends and learning ancient secrets
Vertex Meadow by Ian MacLarty
Vertex Meadow by Ian MacLarty is a really neat and easy-to-use world creator that allows you to create your very own 3D landscapes, walk around with them, and save and share them with others. Pictured is something I made with the tool while messing around, which I plan to do much more of in the future and hopefully figure out how to make something I’ll want to share. (That said, other people have made some really beautiful worlds which are available on the site in the link.)
Softelevision by James Shasha
Softelevision by James Shasha is a sweet, melodious game in which a mixtape is presented as a collection of islands floating in a gentle sea. This game is full of little swells and flourishes that make it great for cutting through the noise of everyday life.
Off-Peak by Cosmo D
Off-Peak by Cosmo D is a curious game about collecting the pieces of a torn train ticket in order to escape an enormous, overwhelming, labyrinthine yet ornate museum of consumerism run by an unscrupulous gangster. This surprisingly larger-than-life game is full of touching character vignettes, mystifying imagery and some really sweet jazz tunes.
Rain, House, Eternity by Kitty Horrorshow
Rain, House, Eternity by Kitty Horrorshow strongly suggests that it’s the sequel to CHYRZA, a Unity “platforming’ game in which the player must scale enormous structures only for us to discover a much more sinister truth. Horrorshow reprises CHYRZA‘s sorrowful themes in Rain, House, Eternity, expanding the experience both visually and conceptually, putting to work her phantasmagoric sense of spatial design and eerily eloquent prose.