This year was defined by a parade of pleasant gaming surprises for me. Until Dawn, Dying Light and Submerged were all wonderful gaming experiences with very little in common besides that enjoyment. Dying Light was way more narratively chewy and interesting than it first looked, Until Dawn was a magnificent, variable outcome classic horror movie and Submerged was a serene post-apocalyptic story of friendship, bots and climbing. They weren’t alone either, this was a really great year for games and here are the five I enjoyed most.
Initially designed for the iwatch Lifeline played as a series of text messages you receive from Taylor. Taylor’s the only survivor of a shipwreck on an uncharted moon and he’s in a lot of trouble. You’re the first person he’s able to contact and, with no one else around, you spend a lot of time advising him.
The game unfolds in not quite real time, with Taylor asking you a string of questions and you choosing one of two options. He’s a pretty charming guy to spend time with; good hearted, chatty, geeky and clearly terrified. You find yourself acting as his outboard brain. You calm him down when he’s frightened, verbally spar with him when he’s self-pitying. He leans on you in a way that feels more direct and personal than any other game I played this year.
You never see Taylor, he’s inactive for long periods while he’s eating or working or sleeping but you worry about him nonetheless. When I got to the end of the game without dying once I was overjoyed. When I got killed three times in the sequel, Silent Night, I felt actively guilty. By rendering the game to something that’s one part text adventure and one part short story, 3 Minute Games have made it more accessible and involving than very nearly everything else I’ve played this year. So, if you have a smartphone, go say hi to Taylor. The kid could use the company.
An ancient game of strategy and the world’s second most famous action archaeologist don’t seem to go well together at first. But this hooked me in a single level and I wasn’t alone. Marguerite and I spent a happy ten days playing a couple of levels of this at night before going to sleep, one of us on the phone, the other on the ipad. It’s one of the most positive multiplayer experiences I’ve had, despite us playing two different versions of the game rather than one at the same time.
That’s because of how well the two elements of the game mesh. The formal nature of Go is mapped onto how you and your opponents move meaning it’s also mapped onto Lara’s natural caution. She, and you, ease your way into an environment that feels dangerous and huge in a way that your one step at a time approach should damage. Instead, aided by a beautiful soundtrack, it gives you a definite sense of stepping into the unknown and a real thrill when you succeed. One of the oddest, and also purest, versions of Tomb Raider to date and one of the best mobile games I’ve played in years.
And now, the world’s third most famous action archaeologist. Three classic PS3 games remastered for the PS4, Uncharted Collection won me over pretty much instantly. A big part of that is down to the most ubiquitous vocal chords in video game history; Nolan North. Drake is exactly the sort of charming, mile a minute wiseass that North is good at but he and the games excel when they push Drake past that stereotype.
That’s demonstrated in a sequence in Uncharted 3 where you play Drake as a teenager and realize how little he’s changed. He’s an arrested adolescent; charming, funny, tough, brave and completely emotionally malformed.
Well, I say completely…
No other AAA game franchise has a supporting cast this good. Specifically Elena and Chloe, the two female leads. Chloe, voiced by Claudia Black is a huge part of Uncharted 2 and her emotional arc is more complicated and nuanced than any game like this would normally have.
Elena, voiced by Emily Rose, is even better. She’s absolutely Drake’s equal, the love of his life and the centre of all his biggest mistakes. One of the trilogy’s best moments comes when they’re reunited early in Uncharted 3 and she comments that he’s still wearing their ring. There’s a lifetime of complex character folded into that one line and it’s not the only time the games pull that off. There’s a later sequence where Drake goes off to near certain death only to be aided by Elena which is almost wordless and all the more powerful for it. Likewise, the recurrent terror Drake has of losing his aging mentor Sully is heartbreaking, even as Sully proudly subscribes to the Tommy Five Tone School of Escaping From Certain Death.
That’s why these games have made my list this year. Because you care desperately about this group of rogues and malcontents. Not just Drake and in fact sometimes not Drake at all. But Elena, Sully, Chloe and characters like the magnificently prissy Charlie Cutter and gobshite Harry Flynn make this world feel real and wild and dangerous. Or in other words, uncharted…
This has been a really great year for mobile games. Lara Croft Go and Lifeline both made a virtue out of simplicity but Framed takes it one step further. Here, you’re both player and author, moving comic book panel pages around to get the character to the end safely. It’s visually one of the wittiest games I’ve ever played. It’s also, like Lifeline and Lara Croft Go, a hugely satisfying and finite experience. Although given how well this system works I can’t wait to see what Loveshack do with it next.
It’s a mark of success when even the jokes made about a game are affectionate. Rapture was referred to as a ‘walking simulator’, ‘The Archers apocalypse’ and any one of a dozen other cozy catastrophe descriptors. All of them are accurate. None of them tell you the whole story.
In fact, the search for the whole story is what the game trusts you to do. Here’s what you know; you are in Yaughton, a small village in England in the 1980s. Something awful has happened and happened quickly. There are crashed trains, abandoned cars and a pervading sense of everyone having been here until just a second ago.
And there are lights. Looping, dancing comet trails of light that resonate not just with music but sound. Snatches of conversation mix with sudden time shifts as you’re led through the valley and learn the story of not just how things ended but of what may happen next.
I finished this game about five months ago. I don’t think it’s been off my mind since. It’s one of the most interesting ways to present a story it’s ever been my privilege to experience, as the methodical journey round the valley reveals a complex root system of interlocking stories. PTSD, amiable rural crime, old wounds and old loves combine with the collision between town and country, science and faith and British and American culture. It’s a game about what happens when a relationship breaks down, institutionalized racism and the cheerful hostility of every small town. It’s a tragedy shot through with hope, a science fiction story with a real human cost and a game that shows us evolution is always painful, always hard and never the end. The heartbreakingly beautiful soundtrack by Jessica Curry ties everything together to create a game that, tonally, feels remarkably like Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Melancholy, hopeful and extraordinary.