Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Top Ten Videogames of the Year, 2016

While a terrible year for many things, 2016 was phenomenal for games. Not only do I passionately love more releases this year than normal, but I could easily make a Top Ten list out of games that aren't for me but that I've watched people explode over.

Stardew Valley
, Overwatch, Darkest Dungeon, Civilization 6, Pokemon Sun and Moon, Uncharted 4, Owlboy, Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes... The hits have kept coming all year. After multiple years of AAA console games lagging badly, those companies have finally started fulfilling their promise. At the same time, indie developers have continued their explosion in amazing output. It's been a pleasure just to listen to different players gab on what's captivated them. Developers endorsed games from genres I'd never known they even played in before.

In some cases, I just haven't had the time and money to play things yet. I'm sure I will like Firewatch and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End when I have the opportunity to play them. One game noticeably absent is No Man’s Sky, which I’ve held off playing since the developers are working on so many content patches. It sounds like it will be an entirely different game with all the updates next year. Given how polarizing the release was, and how busy my writing schedule got in Autumn, I figured I’d wait.

As with every year, I’m going to list my Top Ten Games of the Year. As with every year, I’m including ties where I don’t see any reasonable comparison for one title being ahead of another. Because ranking art is silly, and if we’re going to be silly, then let’s go all the way. This year there’s a three-way tie for first place, followed immediately by a three-way tie for fourth place. We even open on a tie.

But first: Honorable Mentions!

Honorable Mention: Event[0] (Ocelot Society)

You are an astronaut stranded on an old space station, and your only companion is the station’s computer. Event[0] is an unconventional game about what you can talk the computer into doing – whether opening a door, or an airlock, or telling you where its occupants all disappeared to. You engage entirely through typing to it at terminals, having conversations with a robust chatbot that will be friendly, antagonistic, or even increasingly secretive, depending on how you treat it over time. All chatbots have their limits, but the crowning achievement of this game is that its computer hasn’t always hit its limit and spat out the wrong answer by accident. Sometimes it’s mimicking a malfunctioning program to hide things from you.

Honorable Mention: Oxenfree (Night School Studio)

What a lovely entry into the modern era of Adventure Games. It's heresy to some, but I never liked obtuse puzzles requiring you to rub every item in your inventory against every other item and locked door until you proceeded. What I came along for were the expressions of character and the bonds that grew between casts over the game. Oxenfree is entirely about this.

As your few friends and frenemies hunt for a way to escape the haunted island, you're given frequent dialogue prompts to change their minds, direct the course of what they'll try, and even pick who to rescue first. You have narrow windows to pick which prompt-bubble to go with, but whatever you pick, even silence, blends into the dialogue seamlessly. It feels more like playing part in live conversations than any game has ever achieved, in no small part thanks to a skilled cast of voice actors. You grow to love these dorks with all their foibles, hoping your radio can find the right frequency to get you all out of this before dawn.

Honorable Mention: Hitman 2016 (IO Interactive, Square-Enix)

First it was Spelunky and Binding of Isaac, then it was Super Mario Maker, and now I find myself looking up Let’s Plays of Hitman. They’re so easy to put on in the background or watch for fifteen minutes between chapter edits. I’m finally grasping the voyeuristic aspect of gaming, and Hitman might be my favorite game to date for this. Its sprawling levels full of quirky opportunities to sneak in through a door at the right time, steal a handy disguise, or set up absolutely daft murders continues to delight. It plays itself so straight that it’s startling how funny it can be. And then you see the exploding golf ball.

Tie for #9: The Final Station (tinyBuild)

Are you tired of post-apocalyptic games? I’m tired of drab ones. The Final Station is the latest narrative to find a fresh take on the setting: you are the conductor of one of the last trains on earth, cycling through routes to give survivors one last chance at reaching safety. Whoever you find will rely on your small train for heat, light, food, and if they need it, medical attention. But keeping people fed and healthy means exploring the stops on your route, putting you at risk of becoming supper for the shadowy things living in the remains of concrete buildings.

The Final Station only briefly looks like a zombie apocalypse game. As the stops tick past, as you overhear survivors chatting and get more news reports, you learn of visitors from afar who changed something about our geography and atmosphere. There’s something like a mafia following your train, claiming they know what you’re really up to. What happened in this world, and what the government is planning to do next, leads to a staggering series of reveals. It’s amazing how much tinyBuild managed to express out of pixel art.

Tie: Also #9: Grim Dawn (Crate Entertainment)

This would be higher if I weren't growing out of the genre. Like this group's previous game, Titan Quest, Grim Dawn is one of the best Diablolikes I've ever played - I vastly prefer it over Diablo 3. The gimmick this time is that a Lovecraftian nightmare has overtaken the land, stranding magicians and leaving survivors afraid to leave the fortified remains of their towns. Grim Dawn's vibe is that you're one of the only people gutsy enough to venture out into a world prowled by eldritch horrors. But you're damned right you will. There's good loot out there, and such robust tech trees to fill out with your experience points.

I expect I'll cycle back to Diablolikes in a few more years, presently preferring faster and nimbler combat. But even now there's a dark delight to finding another nest of monsters, or liberating a farm so the locals can grow crops there without fear. Crate does superb work. I gifted a copy to a friend just so we could revisit it with him. This genre has always been best when chatting with friends, hasn't it?

#8: Dragon Quest Builders (Square Enix)

I never expected Minecraft to merge so well with the old Dragon Quest philosophy. But if you got back to the original Dragon Quest on the NES, you can leave your starting town and venture in any direction. You either luck into the right direction, or you grow stronger and wiser until you can survive exploring widely and finding the right dungeons and people.

This is the exactly the design philosophy that makes Builders a satisfying follow-up to Minecraft and Terraria. If you want them, you've played those games by now. I'm ready for such a world to have more story and structure, to fill out companionship with arcs, and to be working towards something, even if that something is toppling the evil Dragonlord. The characters that I built homes for and fought off ghosts at night alongside were the same who I had a gut-worry for when a magic plague hit our town. That's in no small part because it's a town that I built, click-by-click.

If you have the patience to collect enough dirt and stone, it's also really funny to build your town several blocks up from ground level. Invading monsters get so confused by the lack of smashable buildings in their line of sight.

#7: Final Fantasy 15 (Square-Enix)

Final Fantasy has always provided me with an alternative vision of where Fantasy can go as a genre. This goes not just for games, but for literature too, particularly today when the genre sees so many "This culture, but this magical conceit" types of novels. That's not a bad conceit for a novel, but after dozens of them, it becomes a suffocating definition. Final Fantasy 15's definition is you are a band of four friends with broadswords on a road trip in your convertible car driving through a monster-infested Middle America on your way to your royal wedding. There is no novel, movie, or game this year that thinks about Fantasy like this. It gleefully remixes magic and the fantastic; I got off my cell phone and was immediately approached by the psychic dog belonging to my betrothed, which apparently runs at the speed of sound so we can write a journal back and forth. Doesn't that fly in the face of a world with cell phones? Yeah, in a way that's fucking awesome.

There are subtle worldbuilding and character touches everywhere. Your main character is a prince from a line of folk who each can summon a magical weapon - you visit the tombs of your ancestors to collect the spirits of their spears, swords, axes, and maces. You notice that you don't necessarily have a special sword that you've made. But whenever you go fishing, you casually summon a fishing rod into existence. It was only after hours of fishing with the prince's friends that I realized this was his hobby - and that he'd chosen to add to the collection not a skull-crushing club, but his tackle gear.

If you're a fellow Fantasy author: please write a personality that creative with your world's mythos.

The game is a bundle of flaws, showing its decade of development time, and the three year death march of the last group that had to finish it by a certain deadline. Its narrative bottle necks badly, some characters don't make sense, and it's the shortest main plot of any major Final Fantasy game. But the flaws do not define this game for me. It's that world, and the odd affection I felt for characters (especially when they were injured or left the party), and that visually sumptuous combat. I like spending time with this game the same way its prince likes spending time with his band of brothers.

Tie for #4: The Witness (Thekla Inc.)

The most fun I had playing a game communally this year. Max Cantor and I spent several days diagramming the puzzles in one nook of The Witness's colorful island. When we figured out the method of one set of puzzles, we'd sprint across the island to another zone, hoping we'd found insight into another. There was an electricity about piecing together solutions together, and a hilarity when one of us simply intuited an entire string of puzzles and solved them all in minutes while the other stared slack-jawed and half-mad.

It got so interne that one night we spent two solid hours googling how the physics of color works and diagramming answers on the backs of pizza boxes. We were not far away from going Full Howard Hughes. Thankfully Nat Sylva joined us for the last leg of our journey, down a deep mountain of ideas that left my brain trickling out my ears. We picked the absolutely right way to play it: looking up no cheats, relying on our group problem solving to bond us closer together. It's left me hunting down other puzzle games we could do this with again next year.

Also #4: DOOM (iD Software, Bethesda)

How cheeky. DOOM might be the secret sequel to Bioshock. In Bioshock, you were the eternally naive hitman who did what strangers asked even after you should've known better, whereas in DOOM you're a furious fella who seems to deliberately ignore or go against the wishes of your sinister quest givers. I fell in love the first time that one of them dropped their act, admitted they'd been lying, and begged me not to ruin their entire plan. It's fun to believe DOOMGuy is BioshockGuy reborn, jaded against ominous game tropes.

Otherwise, DOOM is a visual and mechanical marvel in how well it pays homage to an old franchise while making something relevant in the current landscape. The weapons (particularly that legendary Double-Barreled Shotgun) look, sound, and impact with a visual and auditory severity. The monsters are over the top, such that when they finished going through the classic bestiary, I hungered to see this same team invent their own baddies next time. The situational executions are similarly over-the-top - my personal favorite being when you yank out a giant demon's tooth and stab him with it. It is exactly the kind of art where if it were any less violent, it would be more disturbing. Instead it's so absurd, paced so quickly, and so demanding, that its maelstrom is joyous.

And Also #4: Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (CD Projekt Red)

This expansion to Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is just more Witcher 3, and is thus one of the best games of the year. Unlike Hearts of Stone, this expansion is set in an entirely new region, with dozens of hours of quests, written with a subversion and cleverness that has put CD Projekt Red at the head of the RPG genre. Toussaint differs from all of the original Witcher 3’s regions, using a richer, brighter color pallet; even the nights have a turquoise tint. Much of the region’s culture is more idealistic and chivalric, though that saves no one from being torn in half by a vampire. There is no game story this year that affected me like Blood and Wine, particularly nothing to match the ending when I got a pinch in my chest and yearned for the game to comfort me. It was quite a surprise when it ended by giving me exactly what I needed.

Then Merc Rustad revealed to me that the ending I got isn't the only one. I never even questioned that it could go another way because it felt so fated - fated, as a result of everything I'd experienced and done. But true to CD Projekt Red's astounding vision, there is a happier ending waiting in there. As soon as I finish my current WIP, I'm diving back into this expansion as a reward.

Tie for #1: Hyper Light Drifter (Heart Machine)

Every time I died in Hyper Light Drifter, I laughed. It's a humorless game, but it is so obedient to its own rules, with combat scenarios so open to study, that I always knew why I had failed. Even less than in a Dark Souls game, I never felt like the game had been unfair to me. I was eager to rush back to that screen and show the latest array of creatures that I knew better.

It helps that Hyper Light Drifter boasts an incredibly evocative soundtrack by Disasterpiece, and that it is designed from the most gorgeous pixelart I've ever seen. The single screenshot above cannot do it justice. Its vistas, lifeless titans, forests, and decrepit labs have more personality than most multi-million-dollar games. Hyper Light Drifter's game loop of exploration and combat feels so right thanks to delivery on mechanics, visuals, and sound design. Nothing feels wasted.

Also #1: Dark Souls 3 (From Software)

Having never played one of these games before, I played through the entire Dark Souls series time this year. It was a magical experience in demand for attention and dedication, inviting patience and studying patterns like no other game had ever asked from me. These games feel like Survival Horror that demands you fight back. The first game created a formula and identity that challenged how I saw all action games; the second took risks, ultimately creating the weakest entry in the strongest series of the decade, and From promptly strengthened it with excellent expansions; and then there was the third.

Playing all three for the first time so close together left Dark Souls 3 feeling like the perfect final act. It is tighter, the combat faster, the bosses far more demanding. The Dancer of the Boreal Valley would tear through every boss in Dark Souls 1. In response, you can roll more and heal yourself faster, feeling like your tool set has been refined over the course of the games. You know the basics, and now things are accelerating.

While it might be the shortest of the series, it's the most dense with shifting environments and enemy designs. It’s bonkers that Dark Souls 3 makes skeletons a neat enemy again, but it gives them half a dozen different fighting styles to accomplish this. Then you find an adult crystal lizard for the first time, and those nightmarish hand-rhinos, and whatever brain stem nightmare is flying around the castle levels. No studio in the AAA-space has matched From Software’s level of aesthetic design.

The end result? It is the only AAA game of the generation that I have earned every achievement in. I’ve played through it three times, and am eagerly anticipating having the health to play through it for a fourth. From Software create moods that last.

And Also #1: INSIDE (Playdead Games)

INSIDE never gives you a title screen or a cut scene explaining what it's about. You're a boy sneaking past armed men and guard dogs, sneaking into a science facility full of wonders and terrors. If you want to know more, you'll have to see it for yourself. No character ever speaks to explain a single thing.

I played through the entirety of INSIDE in one sitting, one night in the middle of the week. The next day, a friend came to visit, and I recommended he try it. He also sat through the entire game in one sitting, and I seldom looked away from the screen. That weekend, more of our friends showed up for a college reunion, and we recommended they play it. It was on the third viewing, in a mix of captivation with the game, and with the squeals of terror from my friends, and I knew I loved this game.

Peeling apart the layers of its masterful storytelling – INSIDE has no spoken or written exposition, telling you everything about its plot and world through eerie set pieces and implication. That means at a certain point it is going to get oblique and let you figure things out, but as I realized over that week of playthroughs, the necessary material is all there. It accomplishes this with macabre puzzles, some of which are intellectually challenging, while others have horrible revelations about what's going on in the world. You learn those things in the middle of solving a challenge. That is brilliant, all the way to the end when the game makes you ask why the boy you've been playing as has risked life and limb to come this far. For a Puzzle Game, it far out-classes Portal for sheer narrative ingenuity. But after you find its alternate ending, there’s a lot to think through.

To wrap things up, here's how my list looks as an actual list:

Tie for 9th: The Final Station and Grim Dawn
8th: Dragon Quest Builders
7th: Final Fantasy 15
Tie for 4th: The Witness, DOOM, and Witcher 3: Blood and Wine
Tie for 1st: Hyper Light Drifter, Dark Souls 3, and INSIDE

Honorable Mentions: Event[0], Oxenfree, and Hitman 2016

To-Be-Played List: Firewatch; No Man's Sky; Death Road to Canada; That Dragon, Cancer; Uncharted 4: A Thief's End; Let It Die.


  1. Absolutely love this list! You've done justice to all these games, so thank you for that. I'm ashamed to say that I've "played" most of them through other people's playthroughs but regardless fell in love with Inside, Witcher 3, The Final Station and Event[o] with ease.

    1. I'm delighted to find another person that played Final Station and Event[0]! What ending did you get for [0]? Or if you beat it multiple times, what ending did you get first? I could see it splitting so many different ways.

    2. I played it with some friends. We got the ending where Kaizen is overwritten and we ghost away with Anele. I have to replay it on my own to see the other ending.

  2. I am really glad to hear of something which 2016 did which didn't suck better than any vacuum.
    Mind you, I will be very glad when the new year kicks this one out the door.

  3. The last videogame I played on a computer was World of Warcraft and this was a long time ago but The Final Station, Dark Souls 3 and INSIDE read like they would be something interesting to get into.

    1. If you're concerned about mechanics after being away from games since WoW, INSIDE is very accessible. You need all of two buttons to play most of it. And it's an incredible experience.

  4. Inside sounds intriguing. I'm not terribly big on games, but my kids like to watch videos of other people playing games (sigh), and they've found someone who plays horror games. Color me interested. I played some sort of horror games previous, but moved away from them when I had kids. I'm thinking it's time to jump back in.

  5. Nice list! I've heard so many good things about Oxenfree, and I'm yet to get up to Blood and Wine, so this is a good incentive to finish the main Witcher storyline.


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