Thanks to Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, Metal Gear Solid 5, Fallout 4 and many, many more, it's been another great year for big budget mainstream franchises. But some of 2015's best games have remained under the radar.
If you're bored with the major releases, here are ten brilliant hidden gems.
On one of the distant platforms in Off Peak's train station, you'll find a businessman carrying a briefcase, break-dancing as he waits for his ride home. It epitomises the game's thematic conceit: beneath the lustre of Cosmo D's visuals and the meditative coo of Archie Pelago's music lies a dark reflection of the cheapening and commodification of art. The station might look like a gallery and a home for free thinkers, but you, a rogue presence, searching for answers in the form of scattered ticket pieces, are not welcome. Quixotic and intelligent, rarely are games as good as Off Peak.
Sonic Dreams Collection
Surrealism and mad-cap humour often feel affected and false in video games, but Sonic Dreams Collection is truly, nauseatingly weird. Imagine every messed up, hand-drawn, DeviantArt porn image of Sonic the Hedgehog and co. brought to life. Imagine the darkest corners of the internet, the most bizarre anime fantasies, rendered in twisted, glitching 3D. Funny and terrifying, Sonic Dreams Collection feels like the closest games have come, at least this year, to outsider art. If you played the Mega Drive for ten hours straight then went to sleep with a high-grade fever, this is what you'd see.
The Trial of Tyrone Rex
Genuinely funny and with great voice performances, The Trial of Tyrone Rex also makes a sly mockery of video game choice systems. Using increasingly flimsy evidence, the eponymous Rex manages to keep himself out of "dino prison" thanks to lies, spin and an incredibly gullible judge – you can't help but think of Mass Effect, Fallout and dozens of other games where no matter what you do during the game, as long as you pick the right dialogue option at the right time, people will still think you're a hero. If you've played Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, this one's doubly fun.
Grab Them By The Eyes
In Grab Them By The Eyes, the packaging is more important than the product. You play a street vendor who, in order to outperform his rivals, must increasingly redesign and exaggerate the sign above his stall. The flashier the lights, the more seductive the verbiage, the more customers you'll bag and the more money you'll earn to improve your display. It's short, simple, instantly competitive and has a great ending. Grab Them By The Eyes isn't anti-capitalism - it simply shows the system for what it is.
Power Drill Massacre
Inspired by the video nasties of the 1980s, Power Drill Massacre shows how retro game aesthetics can mean more than just playing on people's nostalgia. As you hunt for the way out of a labyrinthine building, pursued by a terrifying serial killer, Power Drill's blocky PS1-style graphics remind you of the game's base source material and grubby subject matter. Movies like Saw are shot with flashy effects and high-end cameras. Power Drill's throwback look makes the horror and violence feel appropriately low down and dirty. It's scarier than Slender because the threat is tangible, vicious and well-defined. It also features some of the best sound design work of this year.
Conversations We Have In My Head
Rather than debate them forensically, Conversations We Have In My Head explores the topics of gender and genderqueer identity in social and understandable language. As your former lover discusses their newfound identity, you have the opportunity to either keep silent or butt in with questions and remarks, framing the debate as an unpredictable, arrhythmic human conversation. Dialogue in games, notably TellTale's The Walking Dead, often feels unnatural and robotic – Conversations We Have In My Head takes questions of human identity and relationships and represents them in the syncopation of two people talking.
Let's Play: The Shining
Pippin Barr's Let's Play: The Shining is the best film-to-game adaptation ever made. Usually it's action and supehero movies that get made into games, since explosions, powers and spectacle lend themselves easiest to gameplay mechanics. But Barr manages to render The Shining's subtle psychological creepiness and eeriest scares in just a few short interactions. Driving to the Overlook, typing endless pages of "all work and no play..." and the final chase through the maze are all captured in simple pixel art. It's Barr's understanding of how to use physical controls to represent emotional drama that makes Let's Play: The Shining work so well.
Crime Is Sexy
"Punching up, down or across" was the title of Jed Pressgrove's review of Crime Is Sexy and he couldn't have summarised the game more concisely. Beginning with a satire of the ruthless financial forces behind Big Gaming, Crime Is Sexy moves on to target everything about this industry's politics, from the corporate cheerleading mentality of players and consumers to the timid, faux-emotional, inferiority complex inherent to popular independent games. Developer Jallooligans pulls absolutely no punches. In a climate of blithe video game positivity, vicious criticism like Crime Is Sexy is exactly what we need.
Separated's themes of alienation and exclusion are made stronger by its setting. You wander through what resembles a world from NES and GameBoy adventure games, things like Zelda and Pokemon, but you are unable to interact with anyone (they run away if they see you) and all of the signposts are written in incomprehensible gibberish. What will be familiar to game players as a world of magic, is closed off and inaccessible. Whatever your character's affliction, it has reduced her life to mere existence and made her unable to reach out to others.
Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition
Driving home in the rain, you field questions from your mother, father and brother over the phone. Where are you? Where have you been? Are you happy with your life? But as the storm becomes more severe the conversation eases off – interrogation turns to concern and affection, and the people you originally wanted to get away from become people you would do anything to see one more time. Contrary to typical video game design, Three Fourths Home shows tension and drama can exist in the most plausible circumstances.