Different strokes, different folks -- never has this been more true in gaming. And so, it's with that spirit of varied perspective that we at Engadget bring you our favorite video games of the year. There is no one-size-fits-all winner here. Instead, we're highlighting the best games to suit specific tastes and who better to make those calls than our very own staff of trusted gaming editors. So if you're still looking to make that list for Santa, get a gift for someone you know or just dedicate a chunk of holiday vacation to quality play time, consider our selections for 2015's greatest gaming hits.
Her Story, Sam Barlow (PC, Mac)
Her Story is an FMV game where you're sat at a police computer. In order to solve a mystery, you have to watch a series of police interviews, but the files are corrupted and split into hundreds of time clips. You can search these clips by the words that are in them, but you have to be specific as your searches can only display a finite number of results. Sitting down for six hours, utterly enthralled, I scrawled names, clip numbers, and clues on a physical piece of paper, slowly unravelling a truly gripping story. It's a short, unique experience, and the best six hours I've spent with a video game this year.
Honorable mention: Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer (PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita)
Until Dawn, Supermassive Games (PlayStation 4)
I never thought a video game would make me feel like Wes Craven. Before I started playing Until Dawn, I was almost positive that Sony's advertising and marketing teams were ignoring it for a reason. Imagine my delight when I realized I couldn't have been any more wrong.
Supermassive Games' PlayStation 4 debut is unlike any big-budget game I've played in ages. Rather than sticking a gun in my hand, it sat me down in a director's chair and essentially told me to craft my own horror movie. It could've been disastrous, but Supermassive intrinsically gets what makes for a good horror flick: the unknown, atmosphere, killer writing, and great performances from (mostly) unknown actors.
Sure, I've played scarier games (oh hi, Outlast and Dead Space), but those weren't necessarily "fun" for me; I only made it an hour into the former before NOPE-ing out. Until Dawn expertly balances scares and an atmosphere of unease with genuinely funny bits to lighten the mood. This alone makes it much easier to play for extended periods. But even if I hadn't needed to pack my play-through into a weekend, I still would have. It didn't take long for the game's hooks to dig in and pull me through experiences that I didn't think were possible in a big-budget video game and I couldn't wait to see the next one.
My filmmaking talents peaked with a crappy stop-motion short at community college, but my appreciation for movies has done the exact opposite. I don't know why I'm surprised a video game that lets me live out an altogether different childhood dream had such an impact on me, but here we are. Supermassive Games, you have my undivided attention.
Honorable mention: Fallout 4, Bethesda Game Studios (PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4)
Bloodborne, FromSoftware (PlayStation 4)
If you know me, you know that, on paper, a game like Bloodborne pretty much ticks all my boxes for what not to play: It's hyperviolent; it's scary; it refuses to hold the player's hand; it's unforgiving. And yet, after avoiding FromSoftware's spiritual successor to its Demon's Souls/Dark Souls series for most of 2015, I made a Black Friday impulse buy (the disc was $20 on Amazon) and I've been screaming at my television in frustration (and occasional delight) ever since.
Let's be clear: I'm nowhere near even halfway through my hunter's bloody quest in the chiaroscuro-heavy, Lovecraftian land of Yharnam, but I won't stop; I won't give up. No matter how many times I die and have to replay an entire section, slaughtering the zombified and supernaturally nightmarish residents at a methodically deliberate pace over and over, I'll do so with pleasure. Bloodborne's storyline may be vague, the mechanics largely unexplained and punishing (one-hit death blows, anyone?), the save points scarce, the overworld map entirely missing, my character's purpose opaque at best and the game's UI chock full of systems I have to go online to understand (what even is 'bloodtinge'?), but I love all of it. I love the sense of accomplishment I feel when I finally outsmart and eviscerate a boss, and get to save.
I love a game that won't let you press pause by design.
Honorable mention: Splatoon, Nintendo (Wii U)
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, The Chinese Room (PlayStation 4)
Sometimes a game can show more by showing nothing at all. In Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, there are no character models to watch, only shimmering outlines constructed from a strange golden dust. The world is now abandoned, lost to an otherworldly phenomenon, and you're left to walk through a quaint village in leafy England. Occasionally, you'll trigger a story sequence which shows a brief moment during the crisis. You can hear the dialogue perfectly, but the faint silhouettes that move back and forth require you to use your imagination. How Stephen, Katherine and the other residents look in my head will be completely different to you. But like a brilliant audiobook, none of that really matters. If anything, it made me care about the characters and their problems more. There are no second-rate models or weird animations to pull you out of the experience. Only top-notch dialogue, delivered by a sensational set of voice actors.
Then there's the environment. Yaughton, a fictional town in Shropshire, England, is a beautiful place to explore. The village hall. The local pub. A church perched at the top of a hill. All of these places have been constructed with an astonishing level of detail. Whether it's a cluttered desk in someone's spare bedroom, or a garden with laundry flapping in the wind, every object helps to build a sense of place. Ultimately, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is a static sandbox -- nothing really moves or changes, save for the shimmering story sequences. But that only makes the game more impressive. The characters are flawed and their personal relationships are fragile, complex affairs. Piecing them together and ultimately experiencing the residents' final moments create some truly heartbreaking crescendos.
Months after finishing the storyline, I still find myself replaying some of the more emotional scenes in my head. For me, that's the sign of a great game and one I would heartily recommend to players that prioritize narrative above everything else.
Honorable mention: Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, Bluepoint Games/Naughty Dog (PlayStation 4)
Undertale, Toby Fox (PC, Mac)
2015 was filled with AAA games I'd spent years waiting for: Fallout 4, Star Wars: Battlefront, Batman: Arkham Knight and many, many more. But when it came time to pick my favorite game of the year, none of them made the cut. Don't misunderstand me. Those are all great games and you should absolutely play each and every one of them, but none of them affected me the way Undertale did.
Undertale, if you're not familiar, is an independent adventure game best known for being "the friendly RPG where nobody has to die." It's a game where every battle is its own mini-game and, if you choose to, you can talk your way out of a fight. On the surface, it looks like an homage to classic SNES games like Earthbound (and on some level, it is), but it's more than that. Undertale unpacks the common RPG tropes of save points, random battles and multiple endings, and exploits them to create an emotionally manipulative experience that sticks with you through multiple playthroughs. Talking too much about the game's conceit would be a massive spoiler, but here's a taste: What would happen if your character remembered every death they experience? In Undertale, they do, and it gets weird, creepy and kind of hilarious.
Undertale's irreverent humor, nostalgic style and bold disregard for my expectations left an impression on me that no AAA game could match. It's not always subtle, but it's effective -- by the end of my time with it, Undertale had guilted me into never playing it again. A do-over would ruin the perfect experience I had. Considering how much I loved the game, I almost hate to agree. It's right. I'm probably not going to play Undertale again -- but you should.
Honorable mention: Splatoon, Nintendo (Wii U)
Life is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4)
I didn't expect to love Life is Strange. As I sat through its first demo at Gamescom 2014, I had a feeling I'd like it -- but love? No one ever sees love coming. On the surface, Life is Strange is my kind of game: a narrative-driven, point-and-click adventure featuring high school drama, supernatural powers and two young women who remind me of myself, just a few years ago. Those are the elements that convinced me to play Life is Strange, but the writing was what kept me going. The main characters are richly portrayed, with complicated histories, powerful personalities and unique traits that make their manufactured actions and decisions feel real, even when their stories involve traveling through time (and even weirder events).
Life is Strange wasn't developed by a team of teenage girls, but it easily could have been -- and I mean that as the highest compliment. Some of the scenes feel as if they're pulled directly from my own past: The main young women, Chloe and Max, lounge in a bedroom plastered in posters and graffiti, discussing potential love interests and overbearing parents, and the deja vu is real. When the story eventually diverges from paths well worn by American suburbia, these realistic roots keep it grounded. The characters never feel fake and the situations seem plausible, even at their strangest.
The game's main draw is its choose-your-own-adventure design that puts each player directly in the world, deciding where the characters go, what they say, and even who lives and who dies. Point-and-click adventures often get flak for not offering truly unique experiences for each player, but Life is Strange's story is twisted enough to nullify those complaints.
Honorable mention: Gravity Ghost, Ivy Games (PC, Mac)
Fallout 4, Bethesda Game Studios (PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4)
This is actually my first Fallout game, and I was surprised at how quickly I got sucked into it. And this, despite the hours upon hours of confusion at the start, the muddled menus, and a ridiculously hands-off approach to showing you how to play the damn game. There's just so much to do in here. I have no idea how far am into the primary game because the sidequests are so richly fleshed out and entertaining. I know I should be looking for my lost baby son, but look there's a giant crab that needs to be fought in the middle of some castle ruins. Not to mention all the vignettes and nuggets hidden outside of these diversions.
I wouldn't say the game has a severe learning curve -- because you can play through so much of Fallout 4 whilst happily oblivious of so many obfuscated (or even hidden) features regarding major parts of the game, like settlements. Then again, maybe those frustrations are what kept me playing. Reading other gamers' impressions and how they forged their own paths through the game gave me even more ways to play Fallout 4. And once I've satisfyingly hoarded all the materials I need for my settlement, I will get to work building my architectural masterpiece. (Or at least put a roof over some of my residents' heads. Terrible landlord here.)
I love playing Fallout 4 because it's packed with so many things to do, see, and steal. It pitches somewhere between Grand Theft Auto V (and the seemingly endless diversions found there) and the characters, choices and gameplay styles found in the Deus Ex games, all surrounded in the unpretty atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic Boston, Massachusetts.
Honorable mention: Bravely Second, Square Enix/Silicon Studio (3DS)Image credit: Shutterstock (top image)