If you’d have asked me at the start of the year what I thought my favorite games of 2015 would end up being, I would’ve guessed stuff like Fallout 4, Hotline Miami 2, and Just Cause 3. This year, though, a cool thing happened: most of my favorite games were ones I’d never even heard of until I played them.

This was a weird year for me—one that I’m not sure I’ve fully untangled the ramifications of just yet. I began 2015 exhausted from a tumultuous 2014, but determined to make something positive of the depressing cavern corner I’d backed myself into. Step one: slowly but systematically terminate a bunch of friendships that I realized weren’t really doing anything for either party. Step two: wait, that only made me sadder. Step three: I know! Video games and books can be my new friends.

As a result, I didn’t really do as much as I usually do. I stayed in a lot. I played a lot of games I normally wouldn’t (read: tons of Steam games I’d never heard of), because why not? I had time. Around me, friends, family, and the world at large went through some seriously rough times. Countless large-scale tragedies unfolded, the gaming industry found itself divided, and, speaking personally, I lost my grandfather in the spring and nearly lost my sister in the winter. I didn’t know what to do, how to react.

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The world moved, and I felt stuck in a sort of stasis. I think I put myself there, because actually having feelings about anything would’ve been overwhelming. Games have always been a really personal thing for me, but I think more than ever I turned to them for solace, solitude, and a little escapism—the sort that heals rather than distracts, that allows for reflection while I’m hidden away, safe where nobody else can see.

I sought friends in fiction, for better or worse—or perhaps for better and worse. I learned a bunch, I think. I hope? Fingers crossed. Once upon a time, I worried that I spent this year treading water—rather than moving forward—but now I think 2015 was important in more subtle ways. I know I played some good video games, and I know I’m doing a thousand times better than I was at the start of the year. That’s progress, right? Maybe it’s the video game lover in me talking, but I don’t think you can ask for much better from a year than that: a little progress.

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Undertale

I don’t usually do numbered rankings for my games of the year, but I’ll say this much: Undertale is number one on this list, hands-down. It took classic JRPG tropes and molded them into something wholly new and unique. It aimed for the stars with its ambition, yet created a cast of characters who felt grounded—under-grounded, even (I write all my own material). It was as though all the monsters knew each other, had all these little in-jokes and memories. They were a community, one coping with extreme hardship and tragedy. But, when push came to shove came to hip wiggle came to pet lesser dog a thousand times, they had each others’ backs—whether I was playing as a harm-nobody pacifist, a genocidal murderer, or something in between.

Undertale is a game that made me laugh a lot and cry more than I feel comfortable admitting. I can listen to just about any song on its excellent soundtrack and feel an overwhelming rush of... Things. Real Things. During a time when I was feeling flat and emotionless, it reminded me what it’s like to be passionate. During a time when my list of friends was dwindling, it reminded me what good friendship looks like. It gave me tons to think about and even more to go out and do. Undertale is a game that left me better off than it found me.

Read my full Undertale review here.

Else Heart.Break()

I knew next to nothing about this game going in, and for around five hours I felt lost and frustrated. It plopped me into this densely packed, properly alive (all characters have Sims-lite-style schedules) city and told me to sort out things like a job and friends and coffee. It refused to hold my hand.

In time, though, I came to love it for that—for making me feel like a fish out of water in a place that’d continue cheerily skipping along with or without me. As I wrote in my impressions piece:

While Else Heartbreak, so far, contains its fair share of mundane chores, the game itself is not a chore. There’s something rewarding about learning this place and befriending its inhabitants—going from outsider pariah to guy people are excited to see around town or at parties. I’m starting to understand the city itself, too. In other games, I’d hardly be paying attention to landmarks and whatnot, instead keeping my eyes glued to a GPS-style minimap. In Else Heartbreak, I have to remember that the shoe store is the place with the giant yellow sign in the burrows, or that the kooky computer dude lives next to the radio tower. Else Heartbreak’s city isn’t just a place. It’s also a character.

AND I GOT TO HACK A CUP OF COFFEE. Else Heartbreak contains one of the most robust hacking systems of any game out there. You can hack coffee so that it’s a neutron goddamn star of concentrated caffeine. Just like that, your character doesn’t need to sleep anymore. You can hack doorways so they’ll take you to anyplace in town. And it’s all remarkably similar to real world code. You begin Else Heartbreak as a lost cause loser—cold, lonely, and hopeless. You cross the finish line as a demigod who can bend the forces of space and time to his will—and also get invited to sweet parties with rad people.

Tales from the Borderlands

Goddamn, what a ride. By all rights, Tales from the Borderlands should’ve been a dud. The Borderlands universe has comedy and personality, sure, but I feel pretty comfortable in asserting that—if I surveyed all of humanity and a handful of dogs sophisticated enough to have opinions about video games—most people would say they’re not super interested in Borderlands’ story.

But in Tales, none of that matters. Yeah, there are callbacks to previous series events and characters (some of them absolutely heartbreaking), but Tales is a brilliant standalone adventure story full of surprisingly nuanced, likable characters. As I played each episode, I felt more and more like I was journeying in cinematic musical lockstep with friends. I was stoked every time Loader Bot improbably showed up to save my ass. I shipped Rhys and Sasha so hard. I cheered when my new virtual friends worked together. I got all misty eyed when circumstance nearly tore them apart.

I kept worrying, “Will this be the episode where it finally becomes shitty? This just can’t last.” But it never came to that. The series went out with a bang—a conclusion so satisfying and, er, conclusive that I almost don’t want a sequel. Almost. Because the truth is, having finished the series, I miss everybody. For real. It’s just like I said in my review of the last episode: I miss my friends. I hope I get to see them again soon.

Westerado

Westerado is the coolest game this year that everybody just kinda immediately stopped talking about. For a couple days, it was the new hotness—a pixel perfect western where you could kill anyone and everyone, and the game would adapt to even your most callous decisions. But then, you know, other stuff happened. People forgot.

Let me remind you: Westerado is a game where you can whip out your six shooter mid-conversation. Suddenly, everything changes. Sometimes, a confident smirk becomes a pleading chasm, a babbling brook of sudden and convenient honesty. Other times, well, you run into Tough Guys And/Or Ladies who refuse to back down. But that’s cool too, because old-fashioned saloon shootouts are something every game needs more of.

And sometimes, it’s downright dark. As Patrick recounted in his write-up, when he pulled his gun on a town’s sheriff, the sheriff solemnly replied:

“Look here, kid, nobody’s going to miss me. My wife sleeps around, I’m a coward, and no one respects me anymore. Do what you like, kid, I haven’t got anything to live for.”

Damn.

The Witcher 3

Of course The Witcher 3 is on my list. It’s one of the most monumental games to come along in years. In my unofficial rankings (remember, I don’t like numbered rankings; I just hypocritically employ them when I’m trying to make points), it’s probably number two.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? The Witcher 3 is positively massive (I still haven’t done everything in it), but almost every inch of it is stuffed with love and attention to detail. The world is great, the characters rock, hunting monsters is fun, and I wish Geralt was my dad.

I also have to give The Witcher 3 props for—gonna throw around some complicated terminology now—Just Fucking Going For It. That game tackled tough subject matter, and while it didn’t always stick the landing, it made miles of progress in its attempts. As I wrote in my piece on the complicated women of The Witcher 3, comparing it to other RPG opuses like Dragon Age: Inquisition:

The Witcher 3’s approach is more direct. CD Projekt Red’s game stares down real world problems—it attempts to depict things as they are rather than sugarcoating them. To interrogate, dissect, and understand. That approach can create a space for reflection, discussion, and growth. Both games are valid. Could a game more directly focused on those issues untangle them better than The Witcher? Probably. Games have only scratched the surface of this sort of subject matter, and I hope they continue to explore it. Who knows? Maybe another Witcher game will do it even better.

For real, though, the Bloody Baron quest line is one of the best in any RPG this year—maybe ever.

Rymdresa

As I mentioned earlier, I sometimes like using games as a conduit for reflection—to help me process my thoughts while in a slightly different state of mind. Rymdresa was perfect for that. It’s an outer-space exploration roguelike set in a series of galaxies that once teemed with life. You discover this place—pick over its remains—while doing your damnedest to stay alive.

In the process, you uncover countless lost worlds and artifacts. Your character composes poems about them, about himself and his own deteriorating mental state. Rymdresa is a universe that heaves with a quiet sadness, an echo of heavy loss. You wander through it, seeking to understand. It’s a mirror made of melancholy, but the contemplative, useful kind (as opposed to the kind that leads people to make ultra-vague posts on Facebook).

Then you get hit by an asteroid and probably die or something. Then again, if you play like I sometimes do, you might end up deserving it. I once, er, wiped out an entire planet with my negligence. Immediately after I was informed of this, I leveled up. Oof. That is one way a video game can make you feel like a total dick.

Rocket League

It’s Rocket League! The sport of gods and kings, of mice and men, of soccer balls and cars that go vroom real fast. Rocket League is what happens when talented game developers focus on perfecting a simple, svelte core—honing a game until it feels alarmingly right, like heroin for your fingers. Each shot, each tie-up, each soaring flip and embarrassing flop—it’s all so magnificently tactile.

It’s also fucking soccer with cars. It’s a game you can play with just about anybody, because pretty much everybody understands at least the basics of soccer (ball in goal) and the basics of cars (go vroom real fast). I don’t usually like sports games. I don’t usually try to be competitive with the top players in multiplayer games. Rocket League was the exception to both those rules. What a fantastic surprise.

Shu’s Garden

Shu’s Garden is a cute little game I downloaded from Steam on a whim shortly after my grandfather passed away. You gallop around planetoids with birds and monsters and happy plants. If we vivisected the body of Bob Ross, I imagine it’s what his insides would look like. It really, really helped me deal with everything that was going on in my life at the time. I wrote about that:

I don’t want every game to be saccharine sweet, but sometimes it’s nice to have a pure place to escape to. Sometimes it’s nice to smile for practically no reason—just because. Contrary to popular belief, there’s value in escapism. We all need a break, occasionally, if nothing else than from our own minds. That’s what Shu’s Garden has become for me. I go there when all of life’s troubles start dragging me down, and I just breathe for a bit. It’s nice.

Emily Is Away

Emily Is Away is a short story game about AOL instant messenger and wondering what could’ve been. It’s brief, but it covers years of in-game time and tons of characters thanks to little details in their buddy list profiles. Emily Is Away is a time capsule of an incredibly specific time as well as—depending on how you play it—a reflection on relationships, the way we lionize The One That Got Away (sometimes to our and their own detriment), and even abuse. It’s fascinating, clever, and free. It will also probably make you realize that You’ve Totally Been There Before, and you might feel a small (or large) amount of shame. But not many games evoke that specific feeling, and sometimes, it’s a useful one.

If nothing else, prepare to hear AIM sound effects for the first time in several hundred years. At first I wanted to mute them, but then I realized I kinda missed them after all these years—even though they’re like a combo cheese-grater/wood-chipper on the ears. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

Video courtesy of Kotaku friendfolk Cool Ghosts.

80 Days

OK, so this game technically first came out for mobile devices in 2014, but it only launched on Steam a few months ago. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about, so I immediately downloaded it. I was—to quote people quoting hypothetical members of the games press—blown away.

80 Days is a game about traveling around a world inspired by Jules Verne’s book, er, Around The World In 80 Days. More than anything, it captures the excitement and drama not just of bombastic adventure, but of those little in-between moments you encounter while traveling: chatting up strangers on a train, exploring a random city you’re stuck in for a day and meeting a person, if only for a brief moment, who you’ll never forget—those kinds of things. Sometimes it puts a smile on your face, other times it’s bittersweet yet poignant. You never know quite what you’re gonna get, other than a lot of Proper English Gentlemen saying Proper English Gentlemen Things.

The core of 80 Days, however, holds unflinchingly steadfast no matter what the occasion. It’s about using your time wisely (you’ve got to complete your journey in, you know, 80 days), but also cherishing the time you have.

Honorable Mentions

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give out at least a few made-up-on-the-spot awards with silly names to games that didn’t quite make my list. So, here we go:

  • Best games that some people kinda hated (for some reason), but I loved: Mad Max and Just Cause 3, both of which were developed by Avalanche. Both are simple but raucously fun open-world action games, each in their own way. I loved the grit of Max’s world and the weight of its driving and combat. Meanwhile, Just Cause 3 gave me sublime flight and zany encounters that almost always ended in massive explosions. Both have their flaws, but fuck it: they’re great.
  • The game I’m saddest about not loving: Fallout 4. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas are two of my favorite games of all time. I’ve spent about 40 hours with Fallout 4 now, and it’s just... missing something. Actually, a lot of things. I’ve found tons of interesting-looking locations, but their stories—the tales written on their bones and sewn into their seams, the meat of a good Bethesda-style RPG—are often predictable, played out, or poorly told. The combat’s better than ever, and I’m still having fun exploring, but it’s just not hooking me like the previous games. I could quit right now, and I’d probably be fine.
  • Best and only game where you’re a skeleton taking selfies: Spooky Selfies. I considered putting this on my main list, but then I thought better of it.
  • Best game for testing if a relationship is built to last: Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes. This bomb defusal multiplayer game brought my then-girlfriend and I together—and also blew us apart—in surprisingly prescient ways. Things didn’t work out, but we’re still friends.
  • Remember when everybody was building shit in Besiege, and that’s all anybody would talk about? Remember? Man, that sure was a thing.
  • The mighty morphin’ award for mightiest morphin’: It goes to Chroma Squad, which was basically Power Rangers: The Strategy Game.
  • Best multiplayer shooter (once it’s cheaper and sorts out its garbage servers): Rainbow Six Siege. This one’s full of good ideas (near-total environmental destructibility, a nice mix of tactical pace and casual-friendly shooting), but... yeeeeah. It’s got issues.
  • Best player-made mods: All of them. Seriously, I’ve written about a ton of creative, crazy additions to so many different games. But, if we’re getting choosy, my personal favorites are The Witcher 3 mod that replaces all combat with Gwent, Fallout 4’s baby launcher, the GTA V Delorean that actually travels back in time, and clown Geralt. I know they’re hardly the most impressive, but they made me laugh, so there.

To contact the author of this post, write to nathan.grayson@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @vahn16.