Games. Still a thing in 2016. Maybe the thing.
There are a lot of games that feel familiar on our best of 2016 list. Our game of the year and two others are sequels, while two more are spiritual successors or extensions of previous games. One is a DLC expansion. Others are new takes on familiar forms – roguelike, competitive multiplayer shooter, walking simulator, farming simulator. There was no one game that blew us away this year the way that Journey or Witcher 3 did in previous years. What we have this year are games that drill down into established forms to re-examine and revitalize. There’s not a lot of invention, but more innovation than you can shake a stick at. These are games that tickle us because they’re familiar and different. For an industry that seems to always be chasing the next new thing, I find the quality coming out of the expected to be a comforting change of pace.
Without further ado, let us present our games of the year…
– Stu Horvath
The Beacon of Childhood Happiness in the Middle of a Terrible Year Award: Pokémon Sun and Moon
Earlier this month, our own Khee Hoon Chan wrote about Pokémon Red and Blue’s childlike world and experience. Compared to Pokémon Sun and Moon, Red and Blue provide a much simpler adventure. However, while the Pokémon games have grown more intricate over the years, their heart has always remained the same: an emphasis on kindness and respect towards one’s fellow living beings.
Much like the way that Stardew Valley provides a classic Harvest Moon experience supplemented by the features of modern gaming, Pokémon Sun and Moon gives us a look at the world of Pokémon through a more mature lens. Unlike previous Pokémon games, Sun and Moon have a plot that goes beyond the typical “get all the gym badges and beat Team Badguys,” with a compelling cast of characters to support it. They make the player feel connected to each and every character by presenting a community of people and Pokémon who support each other and genuinely want you to succeed.
The gameplay also expands on that of its predecessors, tweaking previous features to streamline the Pokémon experience. It’s mainly about the little things such as showing what moves are effective in the battle interface, but added together, they make a big difference.
– Melissa King
The Pitch Black Despair Award: Darkest Dungeon
“Ruin has come to our family.
You will arrive along the old road. It winds with a troubling, serpent-like suggestion through the corrupted countryside, leading only, I fear, to ever more tenebrous places. Corruption has soaked the soil, sapping all good life from these groves. To those with the keen eye, gold gleams like a dagger’s point. Trouble yourself not with the cost of this crusade – its noble end affords you broad tolerance in your choice of means.
Watch your step. Ambushed by foul invention, carelessness will find no clemency in this place! Injury and despondence set the stage for heroism…or cowardice. The abyss is made manifest! There can be no hope in this hell, no hope at all. And now the true test…hold fast, or expire?
You remember our venerable house, opulent and imperial, it is a festering abomination. I beg you, return home, claim your birthright and deliver our family from the ravenous clutching shadows of the Darkest Dungeon.”
– Rowan Kaiser (in the voice of The Narrator)
Best Reason to Go, “WHOSAGOODBOY?” – The Last Guardian
This past October marks a year since I adopted my dog, my first ever. He’s six(ish), cute as a button, cranky and extremely wary of strangers. He doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do. Trico, the player companion in The Last Guardian, doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to, either. I easily lost count of the number of times I had to wait for him to finish stretching or to get at an itch behind his ear before he’d come over and help me over to wherever I needed to be. Like my own good boy, it was these moments of willfulness that made the moments of cooperation and care feel especially amazing.
That the Last Guardian developers were able to program interactions like this into their latest offering is the main reason why I consider it my favorite game of the year. The graphics are gorgeous, the puzzle-platforming is satisfying, the sound is stirring, and hell, even the admittedly wonky camera controls hit a weird nostalgia button for me, reminding me of my adventures with Ico and Yorda. But no other game this year made me feel the funny mix of frustration and love I feel when trying to coax my dog into wearing his raincoat, or leaving the guinea pigs alone while I clean their cage, or understanding that he’s supposed to bring the stick back after I throw it. No other game made me feel as proud as I do when he finally gets it, either. Good boy, Trico.
– Sara Clemens
Best Left Turn into Squishy, Unfathomable Alterity: Inside
If you dig into Inside’s secret places, you are rewarded with an alternate ending informed by questions of technology, agency and control. This is not, however, what is most interesting or compelling about Danish developer Playdead’s second game. As in Limbo, Inside engages the player by asking her to guide and protect a child through a world bent on his destruction. It’s a fairly standard videogame trope, but just before the end, Inside twists the nature of this player character identification into something unexpected and monstrous.
Inside, as it turns out, is not really interested so much in issues of agency or player character coercion. This is ground well-trod by other thoughtful narrative games. Inside, rather, is a game of escape in which the player character is eventually revealed to be running inward, perhaps, like the player, without even knowing that he is doing so. It is a game in which the possibility of escape is questioned, and tied, fascinatingly to questions of what or who exactly is escaping. Is escape possible if the boy is no longer the boy? What is freedom is there if there is no place on the other side of the wall for the thing seeking to be free? What is it to be a monster, something absolutely other, and is momentum – a swiftly and boldly executed transfer of player character identification – enough to draw the player into inhabiting that alterity?
The glowing spheres may offer another perspective, but destroying them does not offer a way out. It was never meant to. There is no out. There is only further in.
– Gavin Craig
The One You Knew Was Coming Award: Overwatch
I wasn’t convinced Overwatch could really be gaming’s “Next Big Thing” until I got my hands on the open beta in April earlier this year. The colorful, arcade-y shooter toes the line between MOBA and arena shooter, with gameplay that is so simple anyone can pick it up, but which also rewards constant strategy and team coordination. Blizzard’s latest quickly became the internet’s obsession, with fan-art, cosplay and merchandise controlling the core audience of gamers ever since launch. Free updates including maps, characters and new game modes kept players coming back time after time, whether to try out a new hero or to boost their competitive ranking. Overwatch quickly became one of the most popular multiplayer games of the moment and shows no sign of slowing in momentum. Boasting a cast of diverse characters with unique abilities, there’s something for every kind of situation in Overwatch, and there are no wrong choices. Except for Junkrat. Never play Junkrat.
– AJ Moser
Best Marriage of Tragedy and Male Nudity: Firewatch
There are times in life when, despite our best efforts, we don’t have all the answers. We learn, we study, we live, and all of that wisdom and intelligence can still fall short. Life isn’t long enough to learn all the answers.
Life being too short is precisely the reason Henry is out in the woods in the first place.
Firewatch is a narrative experience about a man fleeing a complex life into the woods, and finding neither escape nor answers. Henry’s relationship with his wife, fraught with impossible decisions, leads him to taking a job as a summer firewatch in Wyoming. With him, his wife’s journal, including a hand-drawn sketch of Henry himself, nude and proud, rendered by a hand no longer in reach.
Everything unsure that happens in life’s margins is staged front and center in Firewatch. Those uncertainties are at constant odds with how unapologetically beautiful the Shoshone National Park is. The views are breathtaking, the soft vocal lines cheery and human, but they lack answers, often providing only more questions.The journey, however, is considerably beautiful. It’s a reminder that folks don’t need to have everything figured out. It’s okay to be lost in the woods sometimes, the beauty found there is worth finding.
– Taylor Hidalgo
The Reassurance that Hell Maybe Won’t Be So Bad Award: Doom
There were few moments more indelible in 2016 than when a fight was brewing in Doom: the realization that you had entered an arena, the pulsing guitar riffs and pounding heavy metal beats, the appearance of malevolent demons just waiting to be torn apart. The elegant gore that followed was exquisite, but the anticipation of indulging in combat once more was what set Doom apart.
And it was so enticing because of how damn good Doom felt. The perfect pacing and balance of combat forcing you to cycle through weapons, demanding that you charge into the fray to replenish ammo and health and then vault back to the fringes to avoid the punishing damage the legions of Hell could unleash. It was seductive, but more importantly it felt like the Doom of old. Somehow both modern and classical at the same time.
Doom was new, Doom was old and, somehow, improbably, in 2016 Doom was Doom once again.
– Logan Ludwig
The I’ve Never Met a Game Like You Before Award: Witcher 3: Blood and Wine
We live in a post-Witcher 3 world. Since finishing the original game, most games I’ve played pale in comparison. In fact, I’ve played less videogames this year than any in recent memory, because I keep measuring them against the glory of The Wild Hunt. What’s the point of grinding through a game that can’t hope to measure up?
Because of this, it should surprise no one that the final expansion for Witcher 3, Blood & Wine, should appear on this year’s best of list. Not only is it the first time DLC has appeared on our best of list, it was very nearly our game of the year. That should tell you something.
In terms of both length and scope, Blood & Wine is not just DLC. It is essentially a whole other Witcher game. It is also the final installment in the series. In this is its greatest accomplishment, as it manages to say good-bye while assuring us it will always be right there waiting for us to return, as only a videogame can.
– Stu Horvath
The Head in the Sand Award: Stardew Valley
2016 was a batshit crazy dumpster fire of a year and I’m more than happy to see it on its way out, but for all the death and racism and train-wreck elections, it was a very solid year for games. Stardew Valley, released way back in February, is a shining example of serenity amongst this year’s hurricane of despair.
Cleaning up your farm, planting and organizing your crops, wooing the local villagers with gifts and delving into the cave are among this indie gem’s myriad activities. I’ve spent more time with this game than any other this year, and now that patch 1.1 has released, I’m excited to return to my farm.
If, at the start of the year, you’d have told me a farming sim would top my list of favorite games in 2016, I probably would have laughed, but looking back at the last 12 months I see just how important Stardew Valley really is. The relaxing atmosphere is a welcome break from the political nightmare we’ve suddenly found ourselves in. I look forward to many to many return trips to the valley.
– Sam Desatoff
Game of the Year: XCOM 2
“Game of the Year” should be more than a “Really Great Game.” It should be something that not only makes a splash but one that ripples through the hearts and minds of those that played it and the wallets of those that didn’t. Most of all, it should be a game that remains relevant whether you’re at hour one or hour 100.
There’s plenty of games that reward successive play. They reward diligence, patience and thoughtful understanding of their systems.
XCOM 2 stands apart as the best game of 2016 because not only is it infinitely replayable but it does so with an infinitely satisfying flair. Hour 100 represents both a repetition of a loop long completed but also a loop with plenty of twists and turns. Whether you save scum or don’t, you never quite know what to expect and you’re never totally prepared for it when it does.
It’s one of the rare sequels the not only builds upon it predecessor by offering “more” of what worked, but also improves upon every single quality of the original. XCOM 2 looks better, sounds better, plays better, has more customizations, deeper levels of strategy and applies more pressure to even the most veteran Commander of the first war.
Through small and large customizations, unique character classes and progression, permanent death and a limited amount of time, XCOM 2 was simply the most engaging game I played in 2016 and one of the games I will continue to play through 2017.
– David Shimomura