Living Best-Ofs (Games)

It has always been curious to me that sites (and people!) make “Best of” lists at the end of a calendar year and then stick to them forever. Do people actually only play games from the calendar year they are in and then exhaustively play every title released? I doubt it. Best of the year lists are generally clickbait for easy traffic during a period of low productivity around the holidays. Thus, they serve a greater purpose for the producers of those lists rather than the consumers.

I propose a “living” best-of list. Add the best things that you find for a year regardless of when you find it. This should serve to weaken the bias towards big games with high mindshare and allow smaller, more interesting games to find a hold.

Video Games

I’m allowing for three spots per release year, with the exception of 2007. 2007 was so great that I cannot possibly remove any of the five listed without causing a hole in the universe.


 ~Untitled-1 Undertale, scientifically the greatest game ever made. It is hard to separate Undertale‘s nostalgia for the days of Earthbound and its ilk from its charm. But to cite it as mere nostalgia for aging gamers would be to short-change it. Other games that rely on nostalgia do so as a crutch. You have to gain the utility from the antecedent and the game just piggybacks on that good will. Undertale, however, stands on its own as a game and as an experience. It is innovative without being obscure, touching without being (too) schmatzy, and meaningful without being heavy-handed.
 ~Untitled-2 Jackbox Party Pack: Volume Two is an odd choice for a list like this. The first volume of these games was innovative for allowing couch-multiplayer without investing the considerable resources in buying a controller per player. However, the games included in the first volume were uneven in quality. Volume Two delivers with every game providing a different and satisfying experience and collectively ranks as my most-played multiplayer game of the year. More games should leverage using personal devices as controller inputs.
~Untitled-3 There were many great games in 2015. In fact, it was probably one of the best years since 2007. Her Story was a great new take on non-linear narrative. The Beginner’s Guide moved me in a surprising way. I have a soft spot for sports games, so I am smitten with the love Rocket League has generated. And I was deep on the Fallout 4 bandwagon. But my last choice for this year has to be something that made me play in an entirely new way. In an era where video games no longer have manuals Keep Talking and No One Explodes is an anachronism. The manual is mandatory for play. A player who can see the screen containing a complicated suitcase bomb reads off elements to a person or team of individuals armed only with a manual and must figure out the correct actions for the bomb player to take. The information is well-designed for maximum ambiguity requiring parallel processing and significant team cohesion. It’s a brilliant game and hopefully something that is played wider than in indie game circles.


talos The Talos Principle has a serious philosophical plot without getting too anime-hokey. However, a ton of games can meet that bar. Where Talos excels is in incredibly designed first-person puzzles that slowly wind up their complexity even as you are in the middle of solving them. The game also has a ton of secrets and unlockable areas which helps serve the theme of forbidden knowledge.
dragonageinquisition Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s success is not in its scope (massive) or its combat (pedestrian) or its storytelling (uneven, yet positive). Where it truly makes its mark is in its worldbuilding. Games have been tasking you with saving the world since the very beginning. In very few games does the world feel like it is anything other than an exercise in solipsism, where the rest of the world disappears when you aren’t looking directly at it. Inquisition feels like there is more to the world that what the player character does.
threes Every so often a game comes along that feels perfect, made with a minimum of mechanisms such that you feel it could have been made twenty years prior. Games like these make you wonder what you are missing right this moment. What combinations of mechanisms make for a simple, elegant experience that are achievable today but won’t be unearthed for a generation? Threes feels this way. It is an impeccable mobile puzzle game that has no reason why it wasn’t on the original Game Boy.


papersplease Papers, Please is everything you want independent gaming to be: it forges a new genre (at the very least, a new set of mechanics), it has a theme that is meaningful both internally and personally, and it is extremely engaging.
jellynopuzzle I stumbled upon Jelly no Puzzle via Terry Cavanaugh of Super Hexagon and VVVVVV fame. At the time at which I found it, you could only play it on a Windows freeware site in Japanese. I don’t mention this to be all hipster-exclusive, but to emphasize that even with those hurdles, it immediately stuck out as a masterclass in puzzle design. Make no mistake, Jelly no Puzzle fits the cliche of simple to learn and difficult to master. But it is difficult to master because the puzzles are so excellently crafted as to give numerous reasonable dead ends. Everyone who wants to make puzzles should appreciate this.
stanleyparable The Stanley Parable is a game about game design for game designers. This necessarily limits its appeal for all markets that are not including the set {me}. However, I am the set {me}, so this game is remarkable. Maybe it will not stand the test of time as the tropes it lampoons become less vogue. Or maybe it is the Duck Amuck of video games.


johannsebastianjoust I first got to play Johann Sebastian Joust at a GDC Wild Rumpus party in which dozens upon dozens of game developers flailed wildly to physically jostle each other out of position, or subvert and hide, or a myriad of other failed strategies. The game doesn’t dictate the right way to play. It even stretches traditional features of video games by not really requiring a monitor. Is it a sport? A sports video game? A video game? I just know it is clever and singular.
virtueslastreward Zero Escape : Virtue’s Last Reward is a visual novel for the Nintendo 3DS. Visual novels tend to be weird niche things and this is no different. First, it largely requires that the player has played the previous Zero Escape game, 999. Next is that it a highly contrived Saw or Cube-esque state of nature simulator that leans heavily on the prisoner’s dilemma, time travel, secret motivations, and breaking the fourth wall implicitly. The last one is important. You are expected to replay the game multiple times. The game keeps track. 999 did as well, but Virtue’s Last Reward does it more elegantly. It is this feature and how it is handled narratively that makes the game the most memorable for me.
walkingdead Everyone loved Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. It seems silly to recount why. One of the developers called it “the world’s most expensive Twine game” as if that was some sort of self-effacement. The long dead adventure genre is back, risen from dead. How appropriate.


tripletown I had difficulty deciding exactly which year to place Triple Town. I first played it as a game for e-ink Kindles in 2010, but it gained wider popularity as a mobile and Facebook game the following year. The mobile/Facebook version is much better than the original, so I am placing it in 2011. I have a soft spot for games that take tired genres and make simple twists to them to give them tactical depth. Any doubters of Triple Town‘s depth (probably due to the cutesy bears) need only watch Stephane Bura’s masterful tutorials and videos to be vanquished. Triple Town is evergreen. I’ll likely come back to it again and again year after year.
stacking Almost every year a student pitches a game to me about an avatar which takes another character’s powers and uses those powers to traverse an environment. This isn’t new. Geist is the most salient example, but I’m sure there are older examples of this mechanic. Stacking does the same. However, the theming and presentation makes it unique. The world is populated by Matryoshka dolls each with its own singular ability. By getting inside them, you can use that ability. Again, a simple twist on a tired mechanic breathes new life into it. It helps that the level, quest, and character design is all memorable as well.
ascension Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is a digital conversion of a tabletop game which itself is a largely cribbed version of the game Dominion. However, a game that is plodding and also-ran in one space can be genre-defining in another. The Playdek team that converted this to iOS did a fantastic job with presentation, interface, and (to some extent) AI. Being able to play a ten minute version of this game without any of the setup, teardown, or counting of the cardboard version accelerates this game into an excellently-sized bite. The game offers great decision-making and tactical shifting. This form is one in which the underlying design is best showcased.


spacefuneral Here’s a freeware game made in RPG Maker 2003 called Space Funeral. It is an entirely surreal subversion of the SNES-era role playing game genre. Anything else in terms of description would serve to detract from the experience, but I will spill some basic details. You play a perpetually crying child named Phillip whose sidekick is a headless… thing called Leg Horse. The soundtrack (which I’m fairly sure is not public domain, yet used as such) serves to augment the unfamiliarity of the whole presentation and is another highlight of the experience.
warblersnest The Warbler’s Nest is old-style Adventure game-interactive fiction. The player must type commands to a prompt and hope he or she intoned the right verbiage for the game to proceed. We, as a form, have largely abandoned this for more usable interactions, but there are pockets that still cling to this beautiful vestige of the past. The Warbler’s Nest uses it to its advantage as the narrator is of questionable reliability and so the poking at the world necessary in an IF work matches the grasping at reality that the protagonist must also work towards. It’s a good interactive reimagining of a classic fairy/horror tale.
cowclicker 2010 was the year of subversion, I suppose. Cow Clicker was a joke game made based off of a pejorative for the kinds of money-extraction devices masquerading as games that absolutely took over GDC for a period of about two or three years. Cow Clicker consisted of a static page where one could click on a cow once every six hours for “mooney” which could be used to buy more cows and so forth. It was the sincerest form of satire, that sadly ensnared more unlucky fools than should have been possible.


drop7 Drop7, like others in this list, could have been invented at almost any point in the history of video games. It is an elegant, simple game of numbers and positioning that you can getter better at but never beat. It is literally amazing that this pay-once game was bought by Zynga which has done nothing with it in the past five years except change the graphics to be more iOS8-like. I suppose that is innocuous enough given the possibilities.
retrogame I hate nostalgia. I say this often and it helps cement my role as local curmudgeon. So I am not the person to chalk up points towards something simply because it reminds me of something else that I already like. What makes Retro Game Challenge great isn’t the collection of games that so perfectly match the aesthetics of the games they are aping, but how these games work together and unfold into a larger package. It is easy to make a game that looks like Galaga. It is harder to make one that plays as well as it while offering something new as part of a larger campaign. That’s what this title does not just once, but a half-dozen times.
leagueoflegends I quit League of Legends twice. The first time was because (1) it has a horrible onboarding process that doesn’t prepare you for (2) the shitty-for-newbs community. However, once you find a sherpa to lead you through the craggy mess of mechanics, you find an enormous amount of depth and polish. Riot does free-to-play correctly and makes oodles of spacebucks because of it. It is the true bridge between sports and video games, not Madden or FIFA.


twewy The World Ends With You is a weird RPG that is controlled by gestures and by a collectable, upgradable badge system that I’m unsure of whether it is a sincere mechanic or a commentary on the consumerism that the game pokes at. The story is largely anime-style melodrama with the classic touches on belonging, destiny, brotherhood, meaning, and so on. However, mechanically, it is completely unlike anything else that has come before or after.
romcheckfail Farbs’ ROM CHECK FAIL is a quick, freeware experience that remixes elements from classic video games in a constantly shifting jam band mashup. One moment you are Pac Man in Mario’s World 1-1 and the next you are Link in the Asteroids realm. If this was just palette swapping characters, it would be largely uninteresting. However, it swaps not only the sprites, but also the mechanics. If you are too far up vertically on the screen when the game switches you to the Space Invaders ship, then you are out of luck because the ship doesn’t move vertically and only shoots up. How mechanics work (or do not work) together makes this an interesting and fun experience.
braid We wouldn’t have the legion of self-referential navel-gazing self-important indie games that followed if not for Braid as it proved that the concept was economically viable. It is a great puzzle game with some interesting mechanics based on time. The hyperbole that came with its release about it finally being the medium’s Citizen Kane was a little out of line, but it is still a great game, especially because of the beautiful art provided by David Hellman.


portal I use Portal as an example to my students on how to craft implicit tutorials. If you take away all the fun GLaDOS stuff and just make it an abstract game about portals, it is an amazing example of teaching an incredibly complicated process of mechanics in a gentle, scaling manner. It is in my top five games of all time.
pasage Passage packs so much meaning into such little resolution and game length. It is a great use of mechanics-as-metaphor. The game has been picked apart so heavily by others, it seems impossible to say anything novel about it any more. It is probably the most important indie game besides Minecraft (which you can hardly call indie anymore after being bought for a Scrooge McDuck vault of money.)
teamfortress2 One of the problems with online shooters has always been that the person with the best twitch skills always wins. Team Fortress 2 eschews that with the class system. With it, an intransitive system emerges where Sniper beats Engineer beats Scout beats Pyro beats Sniper, yet there is enough variability that skill plays a big part in it. Tactics gain another dimension beyond field position. It helps that it has a great style and sense of humor as well.
bioshock What bugs me about the collective opinion on Bioshock is that people say that it is a critique on Objectivism. You can easily critique Objectivism; it isn’t that hard. But Bioshock isn’t a critique on it. If you put the splicers in a communist world, that wouldn’t make it a critique on Communism. The world didn’t fall because of the system. It fell because of the drugs. It’s not like the splicers wouldn’t have existed if Rapture just had a prime minister instead of Andrew Ryan. Anyway. Bioshock has great worldbuilding and level design. There are so many perfectly scripted encounters that it feels silly to pick any to enumerate. It is a beautiful game, even if some of it is shoehorned in like the rescue/harvest “choice”. It is one of the few games I finished and then immediately started up to play through again.
ROCKBAND Rock Band is a better version of Guitar Hero. I was a singer in a rock band in my high school days, so adding vocals to Guitar Hero was the coup de grace for the older series. Rock Band also popularized DLC songs of really niche fandoms. When you don’t have to license a song for a million copies, you can reach into the deep tracks.
Just to remind the reader how ridiculous 2007 was, this year also included Peggle, Super Mario Galaxy, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, Skate (one of my favorite sports games of all time), Mass Effect,  Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, Etrian Odyssey, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and the surprisingly excellent Simpsons game, most of which would be shoo-ins in any other year.


oblivion The point of role-playing games for me has never been about killing rats (or even dragons), but about being in a different world. But I’m a pain-in-the-ass because I have such a hard time suspending disbelief. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion did a yeoman’s job of distracting me enough that I forgot about the gaminess of the system. For its time, it was the best in having quests that felt like they belonged in the world rather than being the least risky design.
deadrising There was a time when zombies weren’t in every single game. It’s true! Don’t call me grandpa. What is notable about Dead Rising is not that it was a good zombie game, which it is. What is notable is its sense of playfulness and disdain for normal expectations. Most of the story is hidden in a huge, extended post-game mission set. Many of the game objects are there just for chuckles, like the iconic Lego-styled helmet that could be bonk’ed onto any zombie. Don’t fuss over the nonstandard save system and the odd Prince of Persia-esque time constraint. These are part of the charm.
splintercelldoubleagent I love all of the Splinter Cell games until Conviction. I once interviewed for a role on the game team that would eventually release Conviction. I’ll eschew using names, but the interviewer asked me what I liked so much about the series. I responded that I liked the planning behind a good stealth maneuver, that the world was set up in multiple ways to facilitate different approaches to using the environment, and that the games were not afraid to try to break new ground like with Pandora Tomorrow‘s multiplayer mode. The response I received was that Splinter Cell was heading in a new, more inclusive direction and that the new one wouldn’t be focusing on those things. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job, which was okay. Conviction came out and featured angry superhero Sam Fisher that had an insta-kill button. Sigh. People are less thrilled with Double Agent than other earlier entries in the series, but I felt it did a great job, especially with having to balance being the good guy and the bad guy. That was a great twist from both the narrative and game aesthetics perspectives. Maybe it wasn’t popular because it didn’t engage with the standard power fantasy?


guitarhero Guitar Hero is a great illustration of play aesthetics. Previous Harmonix games had similar mechanics: match notes with button presses. This, however, added the plastic guitar. Now, even though the player is doing the same thing, it feels like being a rock star. It took a fandom that felt niche (and honestly, it is a bit embarrassing to go clackity-clack on a plastic guitar as an adult) and respected it enough to make it easy for players to suspend disbelief.
psychonauts I’ve yet to find someone who doesn’t love Psychonauts. It oozes charm. Sure it has silly shoehorned-in gamey elements like the compulsion to collect all figments and the contrived platforming sections. But the levels! The milkman! The lungfishopolis! The Napoleon level!
osutatakae I imported Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan for a hefty price because the Internet told me I should and I listened for once. The narrative of the game is that a cheerleading squad visits people down on themselves and convinces them to do better by performing a routine. The mechanics involve tapping and dragging on a screen to a song-typical rhytym fare. However, Ouendan is hard. Ready, Steady, Go still haunts me. You can’t sight read like you can in Guitar Hero and hope to succeed. Ouendan requires practice, but the practice itself is so entertaining that it doesn’t feel rote. Elite Beat Agents was the version that Nintendo brought over for the American markets, but it just wasn’t as good.


katamaridamacy I’m not early to the trends in any meaningful way, but I can brag to being someone who preordered the original Katamari Damacy. Games with an absurd playfulness are rampant in this list and this game probably heads the pack.
thiefdeadlyshadows Thief: Deadly Shadows largely doesn’t stand up to the test of time. It was great in its day, but Dishonored is better than it in every way. The one thing that keeps it from fading away is the Shalebridge Cradle level. You are 90% through with the game when it decides it wants to turn into a very effective horror game. It does it well, although with the great indie horror games of recent years, I wonder if that too feels antiquated.
shadowheartscovenant I’m going to string some words together about Shadow Hearts: Covenant, and if they resonate with you, then it is your type of game. Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a Japanese RPG set during an alternate history World War I where one character is a vampire slash professional wrestler who can equip a submarine or a frozen tuna as a bludgeon. This character has a side quest where he participates in “The Man Festival”: a gauntlet of 100 wrestling rings stacked atop another that he has to fight up beating wrestlers with curry-themed names. Oh, and the main attack mechanic is a pretty novel timing-based risk-reward thing.


starwarskotor Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is the watershed title where Japanese RPGs entered their autumn years and the West took over. I have no love for the Star Wars license. It is a desiccated husk of a universe from which no future enjoyment can be wrung. The mechanics which would later become genre-defining in the Mass Effect series first had a home here. I have a love for this game despite the fact that it was one of the buggiest well-regarded games of all time. By the end of the game, my ship had twenty wookies in it as each time I’d leave and reenter a new Zaalbar would show up. This may be related to a 100% reproducible crash bug on the final cutscene of the game which I had to watch on YouTube years later to earn a full complete.
beyondgoodandevil I’m going to say something controversial among game designers: Beyond Good and Evil is overrated. It is a great game, no doubt, which is why it sits on this list. However, it isn’t as innovative and formative as many propose. What it is, however, is a great Zelda game if Nintendo ever tried to make a different feeling Zelda with an interesting protagonist in a more fully realized world. There is no reason besides risk aversion why there can’t be twenty more games in this series.
disgaea Disgaea is another game on this list that is likely to feel dated. The graphics looked dated upon its release, but the gameplay that included randomly-generated dungeons and infinite leveling was pretty bleeding-edge back then, but is now standard in about a billion indie RPGs. Terrible voice-acting, but still charming.


ico Very little new can be said about Ico. It is a game with meaning during a time where everything was a sea of power fantasies and jokes. It supplied mystery without needing to provide answers. It made trite box-pushing puzzles feel meaningful.
jsrf Jet Set Radio Future is a game that oozes style. I still have the soundtrack in my iPod. It’s a skating game that’s about movement, not smashing buttons to get weird tricks to happen. When I saw that Sunset Overdrive had similar movement ideas, it went instantly on my radar.
deathrow I worked on sports games for many years. My problem with the sports genre is that it is so stale. If you want to make a game that feels like a sport, it has to ape an already extant sport, despite the near-limitless potential of video games. Deathrow said “nope” to that and made a beautiful (for the time) simulation of a future handball-meets-football-meets-brawler wreck of a sport. Indies are just rediscovering the sports genre now, but in my opinion it is an aesthetic that is incredibly fertile.


halo Sure, we can with hindsight call Halo a dudebro shooter, but that would ignore the role it played in making games mainstream. Shooters work on consoles because Halo figured it out. Shooters brought the masses and the masses brought visibility. Personally, Halo served as a reason to use my dorm room as a social hub. We had couch multiplayer without a couch. I wouldn’t have known half the people on my floor (or at least not as well) had it not been for the impetus to socialize that was Halo.
phoenixwright I love adventure stories. I love deduction puzzles. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney doesn’t do either of these right 100% of the time, but it certainly helped to start a trend that allowed games like the Zero Escape series and Professor Layton series to find funding and popularity. Hotel Dusk, which would come out in 2007 was the pinnacle of this genre in this form, but it came out in the ridiculously crowded 2007, the singularity in which all good games decided to release simultaneously.
silenthill2 I’m in the minority that prefers Silent Hill to Silent Hill 2. I know, blasphemy and all that. That said, Silent Hill 2 does a great job at having real adult themes in what is ostensibly a slasher game. Pyramid Head is not a deep character by any stretch of the imagination, but something about the aesthetic makes the whole package memorable.