As a continual voice of dissent and perpetual naysayer, I feel the need to award Game of the Year 2015 to a game that wasn’t already being lavished with praise years prior to its release. Others might interpret “Game of the Year” to mean the game that sold or circulated the most units. While I agree that for a game to be considered GOTY it must reach a minimum threshold of circulation, I feel it is an award more indicative of the progress the game represents for the medium of video gaming. A game deserving of the GOTY distinction must do more than meet preconceived expectations of mass appeal. A GOTY contender should push the needle forward.

To that end, a single game stands alone atop a parapet overlooking the seemingly shiftless landscape of dime-a-dozen safe sequels and soulless feature creep machines. That game is Life is Strange (Episode 1 released on January 30, 2015. Concluded with Episode 5 on October 20, 2015). It’s a game that should seem approachable to a spectrum of gamers but has a very focused message with its own art and style to back it up. More than that it is an experience that all true gamers can benefit from.

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Life is Strange will, on its surface appear as a simple episodic adventure game. All of the gameplay revolves around dialogue branches and a time-rewind power. There’s a genius to the simple gameplay that sets this game up to excel in execution. Basically, it doesn’t have to do a hundred things so it can focus on doing a few things very well. I’ve long abused the quick-save, quick-load of PC gaming. Life is Strange fully accommodates that load, reload if you’re dissatisfied with a decision and uses it to its advantage. There’s the obvious prospect of never bogging down the pace of the game or disrupting the immersion. It also allows for you to make very deliberate decisions and live fully with the consequences. It’s a notion that is so central to the narrative that it ensures and distills a true, almost self-inflicted emotional response. On several occasions while playing I would make two decisions to glean their potential outcome, then rewind and pick the option I preferred while fully rationalizing and living with the repercussions of that choice. I learned something about myself playing Life is Strange which is an impressive feat for a video game that few others of 2015 can boast.

While I fully support and respect the minimalist gameplay of Life is Strange, it is the narrative itself that lands it the trophy for Winsomnia’s Game of the Year 2015. Mainstream video games have been telling the same story, if they tell a story at all, about a man and his quest for a long time. Tales that lean on archetypes and tropes and exist in the peripherals of hyperbole and myth. With Life is Strange it is the fantasy that is on the peripherals. Max can rewind time not to show off a game about time travel and hint at hidden meaning but instead to enhance and deliver a very real story about modern problems and relationships while forcing the gamer to live out consequences. The story forces the player through heavy themes like the exploitation of youth. The armor wealth provides and the necessity of honesty and bravery to pierce it. Uncomfortable adult, child relationships. Internet bullying. Human trafficking. Drugs. Sexual Assault… the list goes on.

Video gamers are more diverse than ever and it’s refreshing for a game to hinge its modern narrative on a female protagonist. In the case of Life is Strange, Maxine (Max to us) Caulfield is that protagonist. As a man with admitted misogynistic tendencies (like referring to one of the male supports as “Friendzone” in place of his real name), I really took on the role of Max. I felt Max’s emotions. I didn’t approve of some of the actions of my friend, Chloe, but I made the decisions to help Chloe because I felt Max’s kinship with her. More significantly Max doesn’t suffer the Richard Scarry effect. She’s not a boy in a dress or ascribed masculine qualities to make her more identifiable. She is a very real teenage girl – she’s diverse and interesting. Player choices can sway her in a few directions but she is always very much herself. I attribute that in a large part to the voice acting of Hannah Telle (who also voices Courtney Wagner in the game). She delivers a consistent and emotive Max across the gamut of monologues, dialogues, and narrations.

Life is Strange is a game telling a story we need to hear from the perspective we need to hear it from. A perspective we almost didn’t get. The game developers, Dontnod Entertainment, approached a number of publishers before landing on Square Enix.  Each publisher wanted Dontnod to change Maxine Caulfield into Maxwell Caulfield. Square Enix was the only one that wasn’t interested in compromising the art of the developers.  It’s worth noting that while I seem preachy on the subject of a female protagonist, the game itself isn’t. That’s part of what makes Life is Strange such a beautiful game. The design is deliberate and refined. It’s approachable for all gamers because it is a good story told sincerely. It doesn’t beat its gamers over the head with a grandiose message in the end because at its core, Life is Strange is about the conflict between the past and the present. It’s about the struggle for our identity which is a message as universal as they get. It also does something I personally love which is it incorporate technology the way humans currently experience it in a realistic way, without demonizing it. Max wears her headphones and listens to music as she walks around. Text messages and social media play a part in the narrative (and gameplay). While respecting technology and using it very naturally in the backdrop, a dichotomy or conflict begins to emerge with the nostalgia for old art and old technology. Max’s camera of choice is an instant print Polaroid while her picture of choice is a selfy – old technology vs “new” art, the past vs the present. I really can’t speak enough to how brilliantly realized the layers of this game are. Then the brilliant thing happens. Life is Strange builds the world and characters and conflicts and allows players to live in that world and draw their own conclusions. Emotions fester and bloom. I guarantee if you play this game you will, on more than one occasion, find yourself staring at the credits at the end of an episode with a storm of emotions to weather and thoughts to ponder. The game’s meta awareness and link to art through his analogue of photography is the final piece. Photos are typically viewed as two-dimensional things. A still frame. For Max that’s not the case. Issues and choices that should be still frames become three-dimensional.

I’m bordering on full review of Life is Strange so I’ll end it there. It’s a story about identity and the fight between the past and present and the role of art in all of it. It’s a game that resonates deeply with me personally but I think it’s told so well with enough layers that a multitude of gamers could get behind it. As importantly, it evolves the narrative of gaming in a modern fashion and refines the “episodic adventure” game formula in a logical way. It stands as a success story of what could be when AAA Publishers back good Indie games without interfering in a way that is detrimental to the art and innovation.

Honorable Mention 1: Initially I omitted Undertale (Released September 15, 2015) from my “honorable mention” list for fear of sounding too hipster. I realized that a fear of being hipster is the chief characteristic of actually being a hipster, so I’d like to pay proper respect now to the other best written game of 2015. Writing and storytelling are a rolling theme here at Winsomnia. I gave Life is Strange the distinction for evolving the story being told by video games and a refinement to the formula. For a similar reason, I’d give Undertale the same recognition. The thing that makes Undertale so good isn’t which story is being told but instead the way it’s told. It revamps one of the oldest genres of gaming, the RPG, in a new way. I strikes the balance between tongue-in-cheek and substance that is absolutely pivotal to the success of a game like this. Consider Undertale my first honorable mention. It’s the runner up. The game that almost got game of the year but was undermined slightly.

Honorable Mention 2: The other honorable mention, the second runner up to Game of the Year 2015 is Bloodborne (Released March 24, 2015; Link for Full Review) due to its ability to achieve the lauded “Triple A numbers” other critics flock to despite the handicaps of being both an “exclusive title” and a “niche” game. The real beauty of this game is that it was the next step in right direction for organic storytelling through gameplay while maintaining its hallmark difficulty curve to entice veterans and amateurs alike.

So there you have it. Two runners up on either spectrum of the market, Indie and Triple A. With one winner splitting the gap for Winsomnia’s Game(s) of the Year 2015.