Games of 2016

Life is a little bit transient. Every moment we live today is one that will be replaced by a similar one tomorrow. The next day brings new horizons, and with them new tastes, new interests, new experiences, new observations, and new conversations. Every moment—be it seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years—is forever a glance at the full picture. Tomorrow will never entirely replace today, but even our fondest memories are a moment. Tomorrow will bring something new.

Games, as a whole, feel like they’re more subject to this than most. New releases come every week, and every release a chance to supplant another game that has our attention. Every year brings a new batch of contenders for our attention.

Although few will continue to hold our attention for years to come, things that illuminate our lives today are still worth celebrating, even though they may fade tomorrow. So, for the games that have shone their lights on my life in 2016, games of the year.

10. That Dragon, Cancer

Some things fundamentally change a human experience. The loss of a friendship, the end of a career, the collapse of a personal project, and the death of a loved one are all the sorts of things that permanently and fundamentally alter who one will ever be. Change is inevitable, and can often be tragic.

That Dragon, Cancer is a game about the end of a life. The life of Joel, and of his parents, his siblings, his family. That Dragon, Cancer is a game about the end of the world as one family knows it. The rest of the world will continue spinning, but what remains for the family telling its story, everything as they have known it has changed forever.

That Dragon, Cancer does something profound in that it permanently, earnestly, and effectively communicates how having the world torn away feels. My personal life has experienced no tragedies like this one, but more than anything else I’ve ever watched, read, or played, has helped me understand a little better how that feels.

(There’s a long form review written for the Escapist Magazine around release.)

9. Killing Floor 2

One of the casualties of the ever-changing world is that innovation is seen as one of the greatest earmarks of success, over almost anything else. The new and exciting holds an instant interest over even great iterations on previous successes. In games, graphical victories and innovative mechanics are celebrated, and finely polished variations on existing ideas are often seen as derivative.

However, ideas that succeed their primary efforts well can be just as rewarding as ideas that manage to innovate beyond expectations. Killing Floor 2 is nothing new, nor has it really ever been. At the intersection of first-person shooter and tower defense genres, Killing Floor 2 is a gore-centric shooter that revels in the shlocky, buckets-of-blood aesthetic of the B-Horror film genre. The attention to detail in the gore system—which allows for multiple points of dismemberment, persistent blood, persistent light and environmental damage, and limited persistence of enemy corpses and parts—is what much of the game is all about. The level of precision and attention that goes into the little spots, in addition to being a reasonably polished and balancing shooting game, is what makes Killing Floor 2 so successful.

Killing Floor 2 isn’t the sort of game that aspires beyond the trappings of goofy fun and “visceral” action, but it succeeds because it happily embraces how even a cheesy, bloody aesthetic and mindlessly childish premise can be done well.

(There’s a long form preview written for Continue Play prior to early access release.)

8. Pokémon Moon

I grew up on Pokémon, and many of its trappings are as indistinguishable as the French language or running around grassy fields for part of how my early education and childhood played out. Decades later, Pokémon is still more or less the same monstrous beast it was when I was young, just with a new coat of paint, a bit more energy to its characters, and a new set of landscapes to populate with inexplicable creatures untouched by things like comprehensible evolution or intelligent design.

There are a few little touches that make Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon as successful as they are, I think. Long gone are the awkward and gangly needs for link cables and willing bodies, instead replaced with Streetpass, Wondertrade, and day/night cycles. Where Sun sees a majority of its play within in-game daylight, Moon happens in tonal darkness. The afterbattle care presents little opportunities with the Pokémon themselves that has been absent previously. So much of what makes the Pokémon experience is unchanged, but little quality of life and aesthetic improvements makes Pokémon a strong contender to stick around in collective consciousness.

That said, it’s hard to have much else to say about it. It’s a Pokémon game, and carries with it the roughly same criticisms that have been around since day zero, with no apparent interest in seeing it changed.

7. Hyrule Warriors Legends

Although Hyrule is hardly a setting for epic, hundred-goblin-deep battlegrounds and fields of swordplay, Hyrule Warriors is a weird combination that actually works. In part because the formula for Koei-Tecmo Warriors games has been polished and refined over many years, across multiple platforms, for many different games.

The biggest success, perhaps, is in getting to see a journey through Hyrule that feels a little more intimate. War on a scale larger than any previous Zelda game, certainly, but without the same gravity of legend and chosen ones and time. Much of what happens in the war comes from players that aren’t The Hero of Time. Most of what happens is dredged up from the effort of powerful and practiced warriors, but those who are there through determination, training, and will, rather than those ordained by a fate too pompous to be approachable, and too frantic to be magestic. Hyrule Warriors Legends is a game about whose who’ve worked hard, and whose hard work is reflected in incremental successes in a daunting battle, but one won against the odds by more than fate, but by hard work.

Warriors like these are too important to exclusively be legends, something that Hyrule Warriors Legends seems to understand.

6. The Division

Inside the heart of The Division beats a breathing, breathtaking, and beaten New York City. The city streets are lined with towers of trash, aggressors stalk the streets with rifles and flames, passing citizens can and will catch the attention of the violent, dogs lay dead in cages in abandoned buildings, and no street, corner, or alley is without the very real risk of violence. Whatever civilization existed prior to the green virus, little more than its shadow and its blood remains.

Division agents trek through damp sewers, collect snow on their packs and shoulders fighting through a blizzard, and breathe through sprints between cover in the night while high velocity rounds whistle through the darkness. Theirs is a journey bookended by tragedy, and only through violence can any of their goals be achieved.

There’s a bit of mindlessness to Tom Clancy’s narratives, particularly where military action is without consequences, but something about New York manages to pierce through the genre-blindness and reach out to communicate both the heights and valleys of the human condition. New Yorkers struggle to persist through the apocalypse, agencies and joint-task forces collate their meager resources to jump-start society again, and the villains at least have motive to their moustache-twirling. Beyond the trappings of a regulation-absent division of super soldiers, there’s a treasure trove of details to be found in The Division. Probably more than many games that will follow for the next few years.

5. Pokémon GO

Anxiety and depression are difficult to communicate. They’re things which have no real words, a thought which has no sensory vocabulary to call on. Logic fails to address something like “I feel like I can never be better than worthless even though I know better, so summoning the will to behave as I know it is feels impossible” is so rationally inexplicable that things like depression and anxiety are near impossible to illuminate. Even when they’re explained and addressed, sometimes the only solution for them is “Take a deep breath, accept that today didn’t work out, and try again tomorrow.” That solution runs so parallel with how many would view submission or defeat that offering “I’m sorry, but…” earns scorn rather than support. It’s a struggle many with mental issues struggle to deal with externally, and one that can wreak merry havoc within oneself internally also.

So when something like Pokémon GO comes about and provides a very real, very relaxed, very stress-free incentive to fight against the desire to send the day in, it should be celebrated.

Pokémon GO’s success in using a very simplified AR interface to give a seemingly real access to a world of imagination, even beyond the assistance to mental illness, is worth consideration. Although it genuinely does build heavily on the stepping stone of Ingress, having a program that gets players out of doors once or twice a day, interacting with the world both on and off-screen, and living in a slightly more Pokémon world is a special feeling.

(This section built largely on a mental health piece written on Haywire Magazine.)

4. Event[0]

Life is built almost entirely of assumptions. Society teaches people to speak in ways they think they person they’re speaking to will best understand. We use simple metaphors about sports, or cars, or food because those are the easy to understand. We measure our vocabulary because some evocative words might be poor choices for most readers. We reign in sentence length for children, and expand sentences with very precise and technical lexical and syntactical choices for academic and intellectual audiences. This is a normal way to approach the world, but all of it is built on assumptions.

Event[0] made me challenge my assumptions about solutions, it made me readjust my assumptions about communication, and it did a great deal to recontextualize little moments in space. The empty vacuum of space is full of danger, pregnant with potential disaster, but gently so. A quiet, even strangling death is never far away. Mere instants. Yet at the same time it feels like fighting the omnipotence without maliciousness. It squirrels away secrets, masking their importance with circumstances, while still letting them remain largely secret.

Event[0] sold me a narrative that allowed me to be quietly marveled by. I left the entire experience fuller than I found it. It enriched me in the way good art is supposed to, without having to have the vocabulary and artistic gravitas that I assumed it needed in order to do so. I still listen to Hey Judy on occasion, it still means something to me. I wish it was something I could better share with words, but I believe it to be better felt experienced.

(There’s a long form review written for the Escapist Magazine around release.)

3. Overwatch

So much has already been said on Overwatch, I feel it may be little more the hubris to assume I have much new to add. Perhaps what strikes me most about Overwatch is that its enduring appeal is a testament to all of the little things it gets right. Wickedly balanced, no hero is a failure of taste to play, unapologetically artistic, the aesthetic stylings and designs are still enthralling, and unreservedly gamey, it manages to achieve really interesting things without altering what many players would want out of a character and team-based shooter.

Overwatch does a lot of interesting, technically proficient, and stylistically alluring things. It’s earned it’s place high on this list, and has undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of words elsewhere explaining why. What it means for everyone differs a little, but I suspect even if it means very little, it’s still an enjoyable experience. That’s enough; enjoyment doesn’t require meaning.

(Posted some narrative thoughts on Overwatch over on Haywire Magazine.)

2. Stardew Valley

Although I am certain I would loathe the endless time left to my own thoughts, the early mornings chocked full of backbreaking labor, and the disconnect from so much of worlds that enrich me, I still feel myself called on occasion to a more rustic life. Simpler life experiences, easily visualized and achieved goals, and the understanding that good things come of the work put into the earth means that an agricultural life is a fairly straightforward one. That simplicity and near-perfect guarantee of success is an alluring option when compared to a life of complications and opportunities tyrannizing with an overabundance of choice.

Games like Harvest Moon have instilled in me a small love for the bite-sized day. Getting to settle into the sequence of a miniature farmer, able to plant seeds, catch fish, stem overgrowth, and gather wild fruit, fungus, and flowers. Stardew Valley feels like the logical penultimate shape of that original love, granting even more fishing, more mining, more crops, more qualities, more farm and more farming, more farm animals, with bats, bees, and beer. It’s perhaps the most complex, maybe even a little too much so sometimes, a game can be without losing that simple, direct, farm-to-satisfaction life direction that seems so appealing about a less busy, less messy life.

1. Firewatch

Firewatch is a short game that flirts with the unknown. It’s a budding courtship of anxiety and powerlessness that’s some parts Telltale, some parts X-Files, some parts Twilight Zone, and the best parts of a nature hike through some of America’s most beautiful woodlands.

At face value, some of what Firewatch offers its player is absurd drama. But the experience of consulting a map, drawing new walkways, exploring the landscape, hiking from area to area, talking to a radio, and being swept up in both the beauty of nature and the hideousness of the unnatural experiences is one that’s hard to argue with. The strangeness out in the woods, along with feeling like a part of the on-going events, is a wonderful experience.

Likewise, Henry feels like one of the most-accomplished protagonist characters, in part because his struggles are a little bit internalized; that little bit more personal for the player where many games would leave it more implied than lived.

Much like Event[0] and That Dragon, Cancer, Firewatch feels like it communicated something to me. I left the game feeling changed, even if just in the fractionally small way that a meaningful experience does. Although it’s an experience I can only have once, it’s one I’m happy to have had.

(There’s a long form review written for the Escapist Magazine around release.)


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