5. Until Dawn (Supermassive Games)
Pure nihilism masked as a cheeky slasher flick tribute. Until Dawn is the game which Heavy Rain and its million Choose Your Own Adventure-style knockoffs gesture at, where choice and consequence shape the experience, though it takes a few playthroughs to realize it. Scenarios, scripted by Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, rely less on behavior-to-punishment motif than on a combination of skill and happenstance. Messing up a button prompt or giving the wrong character certain items or paths leads to death. The only consistent moral rule in Supermassive Games’ thriller, against animal cruelty, is indiscriminate, amorphous: harming critters simply causes retaliation, not always against the offender. Play it enough, and one grasps a world where a conventional understanding of right and wrong is hollow. The psycho killer at the center of it all is ultimately an angry child, lashing at things he doesn’t comprehend. A far more lethal force slithers around him.
4. Fallout 4 (Bethesda)
Dreary, monomyth plotting aside, Bethesda’s return to the wastes remains compelling. Pockmarked with irony and tragedy, brimming with sense of history and activity, their radioactive Boston threatens to overwhelm players. There’s always a quest or some traveling weirdo or a turf war, a chance for you to interlope and see what you can walk away with; ideas too big for the box the game’s writers want to put it in.
3. Broken Age (Double Fine)/Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut (inXile)
Two throwbacks, repackaged for 2015. Broken Age‘s two acts got rolled together in time for a console release, giving a complete experience. Its mechanics are maddeningly old-fashioned (steeped in tangled, counter-intuitive puzzle solutions), while the plot is beach bum casual, no matter how much it stresses potential death. Tim Schafer keeps it endearing, though, with humor centered on the idea of insular communities, incapable of solving problems they don’t recognize as such, dotted with Henry Selick oddballs harboring deep-seated traumas. In an industry racing to wipe out what few auteurs it has, Broken Age represents something vital, personal.
Wasteland 2, meanwhile, got a shiny re-release. inXile bank their game on the thing Fallout‘s recent iterations shied away from: gathering a group of dysfunctional misfits playing cowboy and figuring out how to make them work together. Character stats and classes become shorthand for a group dynamic, allowing each to cycle in and out of the spotlight–whether in combat or dialogue. Experimentation is nothing less than rewarding. What it lacks in moments of awe it more than makes up for in this strong, considered core.
2. Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady)
Across its three Batman games, Rocksteady has made it a point to balance out every power advancement with something crippling. Arkham Asylum saw the Dark Knight picking up visible battle scars and sinking into Scarecrow-induced paranoia, all while trapped on an island full of thugs and psychopaths out to get him. Arkham City drew this assault further inward, poisoned blood chipping away at his vitals while the very core of his mission begins to crack. For Arkham Knight, the environment seeps in, rain soaking Batman’s costume as he navigates a Gotham City which looked barely functional before it was under siege. The satisfying physicality of striking mercs from the shadows, beating down twenty-odd gang members, or demolishing drones with a tank is always offset by some debilitation. Yet, despite the accumulation of three games worth of insanity, the Bat does not yield, does not show his enemies the fear they crave. Instead, he subsumes the player, turns them into the instrument of his will. He keeps going because someone is there to push his buttons. In making a game which puts its audience in the mind of a psychotic vigilante, Rocksteady turned players from interactive spectators to the drivers of the plot.
1. Pillars of Eternity (Obsidian Entertainment)
The departure, earlier this year, of Chris Avellone from Obsidian can’t be understated. As a writer and designer, he is top notch. His role-playing games don’t merely present worlds, like art pieces to be admired, but smash them apart and examine what lurks within. Pillars of Eternity, his final project with the company, demonstrates this perfectly. Rather than invoking archetypal Chosen Ones and blank slates to project onto, it invites you into the internal life of its Watcher. You forge an identity, study him/her as much as you portray. How they interact with the Dyrwood and its diverse stories, fighting for a voice to tell them, is the drive.
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