Wes Fenlon: The world of The Witcher 3
I think The Witcher 3 is the best RPG I've ever played. There's some wiggle room in that statement—I still have more love in my heart for the endearing Final Fantasy IX, and there are many other games that do far more to let you tailor your 'role'—but The Witcher 3 utterly, completely excels at what it sets out to do. It tells stories with better writing and nuance, in greater quantity, than any Bethesda or Bioware RPG. Its world is immense and gorgeous, with new things to discover across dozens of hours of exploration. Among all the things The Witcher 3 does very well, its worldbuilding is the one that shines brightest. Just thinking about it is like staring into a pair of blinding headlights. I can't fully wrap my head around it, and end up with shit like "God, this game" and "How the fuck did they do it" and "Ughhhhhh" flashing through my mind.
I wrote about this a bit in my article on The Witcher 3's amazingly detailed clothing. But there's so much more to it than that. All considered separately, the Witcher 3's component parts—its animation and motion capture and art direction and attention to detail and dialogue and world design—are better than most games in existence. But combined, those pieces are like the breath of life animating Pinocchio into a real boy. They simply make the world feel real. No other game world has felt this real to me.
Characters across the world speak with different accents. Geography varies. Building style and decor varies. In one scene, the characters who act in a play inside the game animate and speak differently outside of that fictional construct. The Witcher 3 pulls off acting, communicated through subtle differences in voice and motion capture. And this scene, Christ. (Don't watch if you haven't finished the game)—that scene communicates more, without words, than most video games can ever hope to.
There's so much more I love about The Witcher's world. The way it conveys history and friendships and relationships with a deftness that makes you feel like Geralt knows someone, even if you don't. The way the sun sets and trees bend over in the wind and rain. I could ramble on for a long time. I think it may be years before another world draws me in the way The Witcher 3 did. What a game.
Samuel Roberts: The Rocket League phenomenon
Collectively, I’m confident I played well in excess of 80 hours of Rocket League this year, and my trials and tribulations in Psyonix’s competitive car football game brought out a side of me that I’ve never really allowed to take hold before: an utter bastard in online multiplayer. I tried Rocket League because all my friends were raving about it. This truly was the game of the summer, a full-on phenomenon. On September 1st, all of my friends stopped playing it immediately because MGS 5/Destiny came out and they never went back. I doubt they ever will—but it maintains a consistent audience in the tens of thousands, and I wish the developers all the success in extending its life with DLC. They’ve created something amazing.
For me, Rocket League brought out every emotion I associate with games in quick succession: elation as I staged absolutely beautiful shots or setups, hilarity as friends’ cars or mine sailed past the ball, deep frustration as I tumbled down the rankings, and utter rage when a co-op partner quits early in a ranked match. It’s been a complicated, and not entirely healthy ride. Indeed, my good friend Dave won’t even play with me now because I started taking it far too seriously. In retrospect, my best times with Rocket League were in the summer months when I wasn’t too emotionally invested in it, and I could pelt in really nice goals without overthinking it. Now I only overthink it, and I can’t go back.
But it’s okay. Rocket League is one of those rare successes that united every single game-playing person I know, including many of my PCG teammates. What’s not to love?
Chris Thursten: I found Luke Skywalker
It’s been a pretty good year, all told. If I had to pick a highlight solely within the confines of my day job, I could have chosen the day I brought two years as the magazine’s deputy editor to an end in order to launch our new competitive gaming channel, PCG Pro. Within that context I might have chosen the incredible ending to the fifth Dota 2 International, or the fairy-tale rise of team Titan at the Smite World Championship back in January. These were all good things. I liked writing about all of them.
But this was also the year that I met Mark Hamill, and nothing else really stood a chance.
I have visited a lot of developers and covered a lot of events for PC Gamer, and I’ve never felt nervous doing any of it—until this trip to see Star Citizen’s singleplayer module, Squadron 42, being filmed in London. We’d found out about the star-studded cast a few months earlier, but were sworn to secrecy on the whole thing. We didn’t even know when we’d be able to talk about it: the game’s cast and characters were walled off behind a non-disclosure agreement with no end date.
I didn’t actually have much to do while I was there. I hung around Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium motion capture studio for two days and recorded three or four short interviews in all of that time—but it was nerve-wracking. Not only was this the greatest access we were ever likely to receive, but I’ve loved Star Wars for as long as I can remember. My mum was at the premiere for The Empire Strikes Back, and years later I ended up at the premiere for Revenge of the Sith. (I know.) I grew up with these games, books and films, and I’ve written about them extensively.
I had fifteen minutes to talk to Mark Hamill, and I didn’t want to screw it up. I didn’t want to come across as unprofessional, or as a fan who just happened to get lucky, which is definitely what I was. I didn’t want to ask leading Star Wars questions, because that felt rude and inappropriate—I was there by grace of a different project, and besides I’m pretty sure he’s sick of being thought of only in the context of those films.
Looking back at that interview, which we ended up posting in full, I think it actually came out pretty well. It’s still strange to think that it’s me, asking those questions. I’ve had friends, since, get in touch to ask about it—it’s one of the few things I’ve done in this job that has hit home with my non-gaming friends, which makes sense. I’m delighted by it, amazed that it happened, and a little sad that it’ll never happen again.
I got a picture with Hamill afterwards. I wasn’t going to, because it felt a little unprofessional, but I’m glad I did.
Tim Clark: Let’s do the show right here
This is an easy one. My high of the year was helping to pull off the first ever PC Gamer Show at E3. Speaking truthfully, during the terrifyingly truncated planning process, it sometimes felt like it might end up being a career-ending low. You know that dream you sometimes have about going back to school and taking a big exam only to discover your balls are out, the teacher’s seen, and she isn’t cool with it? On the morning of the event I was afraid it was going to be like that, only with Twitch chat watching.
But thanks to the considerable support of AMD, Microsoft, Blizzard, Tripwire, Bohemia and everyone else who appeared on stage with Day—who, let the record state, held things together majestically—the first E3 event for PC gaming was great. Of course there’s a ton of stuff I want to do better next year, particularly in terms of mixing things up on stage and keeping the running order a little (well, a lot) tighter—but the core reason we decided to do this at E3 remains. The PC platform is too big, too important, and honestly just too damn cool not to have its own dedicated showcase. I hope you’ll stick with us next year for another ride.
Tyler Wilde: Virtual balloons
Rocket League is by far my high of the year, but Sam went and wrote about it already, so I have to tell you about something else that was great this year: virtual balloons.
It’s not hard to get some real balloons and fill them up, and it’s actually pretty dumb that I don’t, because whacking some balloons around is great—that hollow bonk, the way they spin and catch currents and then fall, the game of keeping them aloft. My sister and I and a bunch of balloons was once a whole Sunday afternoon’s entertainment, and this year it’s what delighted me most about the HTC Vive VR demo I took back at PAX Prime, which gave me an infinite supply of balloons to blow up and bounce around. The real thing is better, and yeah, it’s sort of stupid that my best experience with an expensive, sophisticated piece of technology was inferior to a $5 pack of balloons, but it’s the potential that’s cool. There I was, standing in a small, brightly-lit room, looking like a fool waving controller wands around, regressing, remembering my childhood home with its thick carpet and bay windows. I think it’s the full body commitment of VR that can evoke memories and feelings so well—remembering the motions of my punches and craning my neck to watch the floating eggs sail away.
I’m excited for VR, and I have been since I was a kid—no matter how often I was disappointed by in-store Virtual Boy demos and ‘4D’ theme park movie rides. I think it can change the world, and maybe even for the better (at least, I sure hope I’m not writing about what a horrible mistake this all was in five years).This year I got to interview Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland (another highlight), who said he’s never been more excited about anything than he is about making VR games. That’s cool as hell, and I hope this new platform inspires all kinds of creators to make worlds I can put my head in, with the same enthusiasm for the medium. If it’s going to work, it needs all the enthusiasm it can get during what I expect to be rocky early days.
Andy Kelly: Worlds of fun
This has been a great year for open-world games. There was the sublime Grand Theft Auto V and its satirical parody of California. The Witcher 3’s gorgeous, evocative fantasy world. Mad Max’s haunting desert wastes. Metal Gear Solid V’s expansive Africa and Afghanistan. Fallout 4’s insanely detailed and atmospheric Commonwealth. Arkham Knight’s rain-soaked Gotham.
I love games with big, rich, well-realised settings, and I was spoiled for choice this year. Of course, the downside of all these massive games is finding time to play them, but what’s the rush? I can still be playing Fallout 4 well into next year, and probably will be at the rate I’m going.
Of all the games I’ve mentioned, it’s Los Santos and Blaine County from GTAV that impressed me the most. No surprise given Rockstar’s budget, of course, but their lavish attention to detail, knack for creating atmosphere, and well-observed satire makes it one of the most consistently entertaining worlds to cause mayhem in—or just idly explore. I’m still amazed whenever I go for a ride, through the city, up through the Vinewood hills, across the desert, up to the peak of Mt. Chiliad. It’s an incredible place to lose yourself in.
Phil Savage: Bob Ross
A confession: I find most gaming communities pretty unbearable. Game specific subreddits are often too focused on giving voice to small niggles and frustrations, and so present a warped sense of negativity. YouTube comment threads are a big toilet, and voluntarily reading them is like rubbing your eyes in human effluence. Twitter is flooded daily with an outpouring of boiled piss. The internet's propensity for cynicism and ego can make it a pretty tiresome place to wade through.
In November that briefly changed. To celebrate the launch of Twitch Creative, the streaming service broadcast a marathon of Bob Ross's The Joy of Painting. Every second of every minute of every day, you could watch as a mild-mannered Ross enthused about the placement of a happy little tree, bush or barn. Ross, an unfailingly positive, inspirational figure, did something magical when combined with the internet. He made it nice.
Twitch chat—so often a tiresome procession of word noise—became the unexpected highlight of the whole thing. As a gaming community, they imbued the broadcast with gaming terminology. By lending the lexicon in that way, it felt warm, welcoming and funny—even after a week, I still chuckled at the flood of GGs at the end of every show. “RUINED,” they'd shout when it looked like he'd fucked it. “SAVED,” they'd reply once it became clear that he hadn't.
It was weird and silly, and genuinely quite heartwarming. I'm glad that he'll be sticking around—albeit not in marathon form. And, if we're really lucky, the Bob Ross spirit will start to filter into some other gaming communities.
Chris Livingston: The GTA 5 Editor
You'll have to crank your memory waaaay back to the beginning of the year—which feels like 10 years ago at this point—when GTA 5 was released on PC. A great game in a year filled with them, but it also contained an amazing feature for PC gamers as if to compensate them for the delay: The Editor. The GTA 5 editor allows for the recording of gameplay, not just to let players watch their hijinks later but also edit, enhance, add music, view it from different angles, and move their camera around their recordings in 3D space. It led to great videos like this amazing tribute to Back to the Future, this documentary about GTA 5's wildlife, and dozens more. Even just for taking screenshots it's an amazing tool, allowing players to pause the action and position their cameras in just the right spot, change the focus, and add other effects.
We saw some great tools for other games this year, not as extensive as the GTA 5 editor, but with some similarities. There's Rocket League's replay mode—I probably spent more time in it than in the game itself—which allows you to save a recording of the match you just played, rewind it, rewatch it, pause it, and move the camera around in the 3D space to make videos, animated gifs, and screenshots. Mad Max, also released this year, had a great utility that let you pause the game, enter a free camera mode, fly your eyeballs around, and apply filters and other effects for awesome screenshots. Even charming Early Access building game Poly Bridge came with a little gif creator that allows you to record and animate the success (or failure) or your bridges and quickly share them over social media.
Tools like the GTA 5 editor and others listed above are a big win for both developers and players. For devs, it draws attention to their game well after launch, as videos, animated gifs, and screenshots are passed around on twitter, reddit, and covered by gaming sites. For players, it gives them a chance to become filmmakers, storytellers, comedians, and artists, and helps them share their personal experiences with others. It lets players not just play but also flex their creative muscles and become creators themselves.
Tom Senior: Rad remasters
It’s been a good year for games, but I found myself surprised by the return of a couple of PC gaming classics I thought long gone. Homeworld Remastered and Grim Fandango were polished up for digital re-release, completing a year of PC games that has looked back as much as it’s looked forward. The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid 5 have given us a taste of the open world games we can look forward to in this gaming era, while games like Pillars of Eternity look back to old-school RPGs.
I feel as though I’ve travelled between the poles of PC gaming this year. I’m really excited to see a run of great short-form games like Her Story, The Beginner’s Guide and A Whirlwind Heist lay the groundwork for more two-to-three hour games, and I can’t wait to sample the delights of VR in 2016. At the same time 2015’s remasters remind me that it’s digitising the PC’s heritage is worthwhile, and not just for the nostalgic pleasure of revisiting the CD-ROM era. Many games, like Supreme Commander and Homeworld, represent stalled design ideas. If games like Homeworld can find a new audience, new games might spring up to cater to that audience, and PC gaming will be the richer for it.
James Davenport: Dropsy, general human kindnesses, flowers, snacks
I'm a hugger. Good god, am I a hugger. I can't think of another gesture that expresses this stupid life any better. Contact, silence, warmth, and release. Dropsy, an adventure game starring a strange looking clown, uses hugging as an ancillary mechanic. The majority of the puzzles don't require hugging to be solved, instead relying on typical adventure-gamey found object logic. But every character (and some inanimate objects) can be hugged, it's just a matter of figuring out how to earn them. Though it's possible to complete Dropsy without hugging most of the characters, I can't imagine what kind of heartless bastard could get through without suckering up to one or two sweaty, damp embraces.
The hug-venturing is exactly the kind of game design I admire most these days, an entire mechanic and series of 'puzzles' with an intrinsic reward. Of course, some might hear the hug fanfare, Dropsy's satisfied guffaw, see the wavy-arm splash graphic, and internalize it as some kind of checklist dopamine kick. Part of me may have internalized it that way, but I'd like to think that I was roleplaying this happy-go-lucky, unnerving clown, taking time out of my important narrative task to love on people. Dropsy is empathy exercise, something we could all use more of. (My empathy abs are looking droopy.) I don't think it's a flawless game, but it may have the most heart of any I played this year.
And how about that soundtrack! Listen, please listen, even if you’re intent on never touching a game about wet clown hugs. The soundtrack could stand on it’s own as a chill instrumental collection. Perfect for cooking with some buds, a walk on your lonesome, or as metronome to pace your HPM (hugs per minute) with.
Tom Marks: Beating Larian Studios at their own game (four times)
Back in August, Larian Studios founder Swen Vincke came by our office to give us a hands-on look at the pre-alpha of Divinity: Original Sin 2. I absolutely loved the first Original Sin so this moment would probably be one of my highs of this year regardless, but it was made better by the reveal that Original Sin 2 would have a built-in competitive multiplayer mode—which I then got to play with Swen. Or, that is to say, got to play against him.
I’ve played a lot of games with their developers before, but this was undoubtedly the most nervous I’ve been during one of those sessions. Facing off against the creator of Divinity in an unreleased version of the next Divinity. I was so nervous about not doing terribly that I think I may have gone a little too tryhard. I ended up beating him. Handily. To be fair, Swen got focused by the neutral skeletons scattered around the map significantly more than I did—and he had an unfortunate misclick at one point—but that didn’t stop me from teleporting his already knocked down characters into burning puddles of oil.
We had a laugh about it afterwards (he recommended I play the sequel on the harder difficulty setting) and that was that...until a month later when we had the ‘rematch of the century’ at TwitchCon. Larian had a small booth to showcase the latest build and promote their Kickstarter, which went on to end with over $2 million.The single player demo was mostly the same as what I had already played the month before, but there was a different multiplayer mode: three head-to-head battles fought in succession, with rewards for the winner and a shop between each fight. This was our battlefield.
Swen was at the booth, but I was pit against another developer from Larian for the first round, and when I emerged victorious from the first battle Swen stepped in with a new fire behind his eyes. This was no longer just a demo; pride was now on the line. I had beaten him once and Larian twice, but he was ready to end that streak right here and now. No misclicks, no biased skeleton NPCs, and no mercy.
I proceeded to take him down two more times. Our first fight was another regular battle, but the final round was a slightly different format, tasking each player with reaching a point across the map before their opponent. I got demolished by Swen’s clever use of a giant stone golem NPC in the center of the map, but managed to sneak past it and just barely got to the goal before him. It was an epic battle, and the experience might be my proudest moment in gaming, which is a simultaneously understandable and depressing thought.
Hopefully when Divinity: Original Sin 2 gets closer to release we can go for a third round. Until then, I’ll just have to play the Enhanced Edition to keep my tactics sharp. Final score: PC Gamer 4, Larian Studios 0. Your move, Swen.