2016 was a unique and diverse year for video games. The year’s best games excelled at portraying challenging themes through focused mechanics, a stark shift from last year’s best titles like The Witcher 3, Undertale, and Her Story which enamored players with their robust stories and narrative. Both Virginia and Firewatch earned their places on my top 10 for storytelling, but rather for the intimacy of their stories rather than their scale and depth. Style and substance abound. 2016 continues the trend of the year’s best games coming not from iterative AAA development, but rather from the unique opportunities that new IP and indie development provide. The trend also produces a list of games of surprising size and scope variability, from the brief but striking Superhot to the rich depth of Darkest Dungeon.
Visuals are another area of surprise. Dishonored 2 and Doom both lead in the area traditionally exceptional visuals, but both are also heavily stylized. They fit in nicely with the other games in the top 10, each uniquely beautiful. It’s that artful approach to design in both visuals and gameplay that truly separate these games from the pack. Characters like The Last Guardian‘s Trico and near all of Overwatch‘s roster are given life through interaction-focused animation.
That carries over into audio work as well. Roadhog’s sudden hooks stab and tug in Overwatch. Trico’s mournful wails resound off walls and cliff sides in The Last Guardian. Enemies crumble and shatter in slow motion in Superhot. This top 10 could very well be just for sound design. Dialogue alone could justify half this top 10, though many feature no dialogue. The voiceover of Darkest Dungeon‘s narrator alone, which feels like gravel and stress, might be Game of the Year. And just the words “Super” and “Hot” still produce a Pavlov response of adrenaline.
2016 was tumultuous, weird, and wonderful. It’s only fitting that my top 10 games of the year reflect that.
Note: This list contains light-to-average spoilers. Consider avoiding descriptions for games you plan on playing.
1.) The Last Guardian
Fumito Ueda is a miracle worker at creating emotional bonds between the player and in-game characters through non-traditional communications. The Last Guardian is Ueda’s magnum opus in that regard. Consider that the relationship between protagonist Wander and his horse, Agro, in Shadow of the Colossus is more grounded than that between Wander and his sleeping love interest. It’s fitting that Agro, whose frustrating controls lent the horse a surprising realism, likely evolved into Trico. Similarly, Yorda, the bag of potatoes from Ico, is another Trico precursor. But Trico becomes so much more, transcending the limitations both Agro and Yorda shared and truly becoming one of the best realized AI characters in gaming history.
Playing The Last Guardian can be frustrating due to Trico’s unreliable responses to the player’s requests. Patience, in a tangible way, becomes a core gameplay mechanic. The Last Guardian is at its heart a game about learning to communicate with this creature. Through intentionally clumsy design, Ueda gave Trico life. Trico must be unreliable, lest it become a simple tool. And so progressing through the game felt less like learning a mechanic and more like learning to trust Trico. And ultimately Trico learning to trust me, the player.
During The Last Guardian‘s most tense moments, I was genuinely pained to know that Trico could be or was being hurt. That’s not why The Last Guardian is my game of the year though. No, it’s my game of the year because by the end of The Last Guardian I felt like Trico genuinely cared that I was hurt. Not since Journey have I felt such a pure emotional connection to another character, but in Journey that character was another living person.
2.) The Witness
The Witness asks players to solve puzzles, one by one. Complete a puzzle, move onto the next. Through solving puzzles, the player eventually learns a language. Initially it’s just symbols on a grid — dots, lines, and eventually more complicated characters. Eventually The Witness asks more of the player, introducing sounds and rhythms. Next comes 3D objects outside of the puzzle, like tree branches and shadows. But for all the complicated rules, each puzzle at its heart is about drawing lines on a grid. The Witness constantly asks the player to break down exceedingly complicated puzzles into their core components. And if those components aren’t obvious, it’s always clear that the player just needs to step back and look at the puzzles from another point of view.
For the first half of The Witness, just going through the motions of exploring this wonderful island and solving puzzles, all the player has to focus on is learning this language. The puzzles are clever and challenging, the island is beautiful, and progressing feels constantly rewarding. Everything changed after reaching the top of the mountain. My experience was elevated (hah). The puzzle atop the mountain changed the game. It was an immediate realization, a legitimate “Aha!” moment.
The Witness is about puzzles, but more than that it’s about perspective. For all the audio messages, the secret videos, all it took to reach me was that one puzzle on the top of the mountain. I didn’t play more than a few hours more after reaching the top of the mountain and finishing the game for a first time. But I still think back to The Witness — a lot. So maybe I never really did stop playing.
I am enamored with Overwatch. Blizzard’s standard of quality covers any expectation I might have for an online multiplayer shooter. And the way the studio adapted mechanics common from MOBAs, MMOs, and other shooters a into unique roster of playable heroes is an astonishing design achievement. That’s the foundation of our relationship, but it takes more than that to steal my heart.
What Blizzard’s done is bring the world of Overwatch and its characters alive in a way no other multiplayer shooter, except Team Fortress 2, has done before. Pick any character and I could describe what they look like, what their weapon fire looks like, how their abilities work, and a dozen their abilities interact with other players’ abilities in exciting ways. More than that I could describe each character’s laugh, their sense of humor, and which other characters they have relationships with. It’s all stashed away in my memory purely due to playing the game, because Blizzard’s enriched the playing of Overwatch with a staggering amount of detail. The comics and cinematic videos Blizzard does outside of the game are just icing on the cake.
I know my love of Overwatch is unrequited. There’s no room for me in its endless pursuit of more players and loot box sales. The characters in Overwatch are meant to endlessly battle, never to resolve their interpersonal conflicts. It’s the nature of a multiplayer-only game. But I can’t help but care. I know it’s a manipulation of my feelings, but just let me have this moment while it lasts.
4.) Darkest Dungeon
There is a quality to Darkest Dungeon that is beyond rare in video games. It’s a feeling that’s something like losing a party member in XCOM, or perhaps closer to losing one in Fire Emblem, but a step further. A step in a more compelling direction. Because in Darkest Dungeon, death is inevitable. That’s where Darkest Dungeon‘s artistry comes in. It’s not just about the risk of loss. It’s about the struggle in the face of inevitable doom. In Darkest Dungeon, you use a party of disturbed near-monsters too push back the dark. The dark will push back… aggressively. But it’s not about winning, it’s about struggling.
Darkest Dungeon‘s depth of challenge alone is worth acknowledging. But it’s that feeling of facing that challenge knowing you’re doomed, yet doing it anyway, that’s so addictive. Darkest Dungeon smothers, dismantling all carefully laid plans. The narrator will hammer in that Lovecraftian sense of foreboding, but you’ll only question your sanity after you’ve closed the game — and start thinking about what you’ll do different the next time you play.
There’s a simple mechanic that captures the essence of Darkest Dungeon so well. The party comes upon a pile of refuse, rubble, a terrifying statue or what have you. You know it’s almost certainly cursed, a trap, or something more horrible, but you inspect it anyway. You expect the worst, knowing the rare reward — as tepid as it will be — is worth the endeavor.
At the time I played Firewatch, I had a focus on several negatives which at the time felt pressing — the main mystery, for the record. Since then, the negatives have all but melted away. What remains is a deep appreciation for the broader themes of the game. Firewatch revolves around Henry, who comes to the woods to escape a situation where he’s lost. Instead of finding himself, however, Henry discovers he’s just as lost in the wilderness as at home. He struggles to find direction and purpose even here in the wild, but inevitably find’s that all he’s done is escape and ignore how lost he is.
I never came to a proper conclusion as to the state of Henry’s self-awareness post-Firewatch. I’m not sure if a proper conclusion was meant to be reached. We just get Henry riding off in a helicopter, his adventures stripped of him, looking down at the wilderness aflame. It was his job to watch for fires, and he did his job admirably, but he could do nothing to prevent that fire from spreading — nothing except escape it.
The parallels are many, including the parallel of playing a game. The escapism, the seduction of adventure, the comfort of structured confusion — it’s all very on the nose criticism. And how perfect is it that so many, including myself, focused on dissecting the mystery after playing rather than considering Firewatch‘s themes and message. I like to believe Henry’s adventuring days are over, but maybe that’s just projection.
There’s something to be said about id taking the classic Doom formula and making it modern and relevant. But just because Doom‘s a classic franchise shouldn’t make today’s Doom great. If anything, it’s the classic Doom gameplay of hunting down armor pieces and ammo, backtracking towards missed paths, and sloppy, slow transitions between action sequences that are Doom‘s worst aspects. But Doom makes up for it entirely. How? Style, style, style.
Doom does plenty to make itself great on its own with its raucous, over the top style. It’s the heavy metal music that becomes the heartbeat of Doom‘s gameplay, making every power-up a self-administered shot of adrenaline. It’s the primacy and animalism of obliterating hordes of demons to the thumping electronic beats, blood splattering everywhere. It’s dancing between lasers, rockets, and flaming skulls only to ram your fist down a skeleton’s throat. Survival is secondary to carnage.
Somehow id manages to keep the action in constant escalation throughout Doom, even with the limited settings. I’m not sure where id goes from here, but hopefully it involves Romero’s floating head.
Compared to Limbo, Inside feels much more aloof, like it wasn’t confident when and where to be direct and honest with the player. The ending provides clarity, but in doing so only made me wish Playdead had opened the reality of this world to the player much faster. As it stands, I rarely felt connected with the moment to moment puzzles and plot. That Inside remains on this list is testament to how well the game’s overarching themes resounded.
Control is so everpresent that it’s oppressive and with physical weight: the “enemy” constantly in pursuit, the pig’s parasite, the lines, the helmets, the containment vat and so much more. And in opposition, freedom, or some sort of dark reflection of it: pulling free the pig’s parasite, “escaping” inwards, getting caught by a swimmer, and setting free the thing. What is Playdead trying to say by making us play from the perspective of the boy? Is the boy’s perspective trustworthy with regards to what is actually going on? I can’t help but think that if Playdead had provided more answers, it would have made the experience of Inside all the richer.
Virginia was one of the last games I played in 2016, which should make clear how immediate its impact was on me. The final third of Virginia is delightfully abstract, intended to leave players reeling and thoughtful. Yet when I should probably have had my mind blown wide by the mystery, I instead grew focused on protagonist Anne Tarver. Whereas Anne’s work grew indecipherable and nebulous, her character grew distinct and cogent. I felt more in tune with Anne’s feelings, particularly her fears, and as a result Anne grew immeasurably more real.
I couldn’t escape several nights pondering the mysteries of Kingdom and the missing boy, but it was through knowing Anne as the narrative filter. How much did Anne’s perspective color what players learned about Kingdom? I can’t help but believe Kingdom just a catalyst for self-discovery within Anne. But I don’t know if the conclusions she came to had any basis in reality. And that’s awesome.
9.) Dishonored 2
Hopefully everyone’s familiar with the newspaper comic Family Circus, because there’s a recurring comic from it that describes my ideal Dishonored 2 experience. It’s essentially a map with several landmarks and there’s a dotted line that explores the entirety of the map, which the comic character follows to the end. That’s how I play Dishonored 2 and also what makes it great. The start of every level is an open map full of landmarks and mystery. I systematically move from point to point recovering relics, progressing through story beats, and opening every drawer and safe throughout the outstanding labyrinthine level design.
That the moment-to-moment action is filled with stealth and/or action, all improvised on the fly using a selection of very fun abilities, only makes Dishonored 2 all the more worth the while. Unfortunately the freedom available to the player minimizes the intra-level narrative, which can hamstring story and plot momentum from level to level. But the richness of the world makes up for it very well. Each of Dishonored 2‘s levels is a delight to lose yourself in.
Superhot may be too short, but it’s glorious all the same. Time only moves when you do in Superhot, allowing you to perform action stunts like Neo in The Matrix. Every level, despite not being strikingly diverse, makes the player feel like an expert fight choreographer. That freedom allows experimentation, and Superhot is at its best when the player does unpredictable actions. I’d love for the Superhot Team to take the core gameplay and implement it into a larger, cohesive experience — maybe even an RPG. For now though, Superhot‘s unique combat and personality make it very is impressive for what it is.
- Dragon Quest Builders – There’s a feature in Dragon Quest Builders that must be noted: the blueprint feature. It allows players to create rooms off of pre-constructed designs, like it’s LEGO. If Square Enix built an entire game around this feature, it’d be an instant classic.
- Hyperlight Drifter – Hyperlight Drifter is one of the best looking games of the year — just staggeringly great pixel art. I also have a spot spot for the game’s story and lore, but it’s a bit too subtle in its storytelling. That and the combat being a bit messy made the game miss my 10, but I still wanted to give it some love.
- Street Fighter V – I had Street Fighter V on my list up until the week (as high as #3) before I finalized it. I’m a huge fan of competitive Street Fighter V and I think it’s the best spectator eSport currently on the market. That said, I can’t really play it. I ended up not being able to justify including it on my list when I don’t even play the game, and am actually quite disappointed in the content available to low-skill players like myself.
- Overcooked – Overcooked is, put simply, by far the best cooperative multiplayer game of the year. It’s incredibly fun to play with friends (who don’t get frustrated easily).