Gamasutra editor Alex Wawro continues our end-of-the-year series by sharing some thoughts on a few of his favorite games of 2016.
Friends, we made it.
We made it through another year! We made so many memories, so many mistakes, so many nice little moments that we can record and bring out later, years down the line, to make us remember who we were.
Now, as winter closes in around so many of us, we're making our fair share of fond recommendations to friends of all the remarkable things made this year. In my case, it's a bit of an overshare -- I've made you a list of ten games I really think are Just The Best.
I'm not alone, either -- so far we've published lists of this year's notable games from Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft, contributing editor Bryant Francis, senior contributing editor Brandon Sheffield, and contributor Alissa McAloon. Read them all, and look forward to more in the week ahead!
What follows, then, is an alphabetical rundown of some of the games that made my year.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided by Eidos Montreal
When I was young, the original Deus Ex made a big impression: it was the first game I played that made me feel like video games could be more than idle time-killers, that they could be venues for both creators and players to tell stories. That's not to say those stories are necessarily good, of course -- more often than not the story of my time playing a Deus Ex game is "man spends an awful lot of time bumbling around in vents" -- but the possibility remains.
When I spoke to narrative director Mary DeMarle this year about Eidos Montreal’s latest, she said the team was trying to create something that could “hold a mirror up to the world and expose it.” But if Mankind Divided does reflect something of our real world, it’s as a funhouse mirror: some bits are blown cartoonishly out of proportion, while others are minimized or twisted so much as to be unrecognizable.
The rest of the game -- the bits where you’re wriggling through vents, hacking security systems, and traversing the streets of a near-future Prague -- is fantastic. Many people will (quite understandably!) say Dishonored 2 is the year’s best game about sneaking through sewers, but for my money it’s Deus Ex. From the smart first/third-person perspective switching to the level design (the Palisade Bank is a standout example), I found just about every aspect of actually playing the game to be ineffably satisfying.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor by Sundae Month
For many people, games are safe spaces. Places where you can be safely challenged, safely scared, safely thrilled. I don't fully understand (yet) what Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is "about", but I love it as a space where I can feel safely bewildered. Everything about this game -- from the janitor you guide to the characters you meet to the places you go -- is charming, colorful, and utterly confounding in the best way.
It's a game about picking up trash and incinerating it. It's a game that not only permits gender-swapping, but mandates and celebrates it. It's a game about finding fancy, high-powered swords and selling them for money to buy food, because you're starving and you're too hungry to sleep and besides what the hell would you do with a dumb sword anyway, you're a space janitor. It's a game that surprises and delights me every time I play, creating some of my best memories of the year.
Dragon Quest Builders by Square Enix
The notion of swiping the basic mechanics of Minecraft and using them as the foundation of a bigger game with characters, quests, and an overarching plot seems like a nearly surefire path to success, so it’s a bit surprising it took this long for someone to try.
Dragon Quest Builders does just that, and it’s great. While the game wears a bit thin in spots -- some of the quests can be maddeningly obtuse, and players are regularly required to abandon their creations in order to progress through the plot -- playing through it remains one of the highlights of my year. Though to be honest, more often I was watching my partner play through it, enjoying Builder’s charming soundscape and cute, colorful aesthetic all the while.
Firewatch by Campo Santo
Firewatch is a game about two people talking in the woods, and I love it. It’s a great example of how a team can craft a game with vibrant, believable characters and meaningful choices without falling back anointing the player as the savior/destroyer of the world. Firewatch protagonist Henry is an unremarkable man with a bit of paunch and a bad few years under his belt; the game strikes a great balance, design-wise, between showing who Henry is (by fading in on him writing a letter, for example, or automatically annotating the map with his musings as the game progresses) and allowing the player to tell his story through dialogue choices.
The results of those choices are wonderfully delivered, too; nailing comedic timing and emotional subtext in voice acting is tricky business, but I think performers Rich Sommer (Henry) and Crissy Jones (Delilah) pulled it off beautifully here. The story of my time with Firewatch is utterly trite and totally true: whether you love or hate the ending, the best part is the journey.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime by Asteroid Base
This co-op spacefaring game actually came out last September, but it debuted on PlayStation 4 this year and my partner and I played the heck out of it.
Lover In A Dangerous Spacetime exemplifies what’s good in games: it’s colorful, charming, and designed to get a group of people shouting and laughing at the screen together.
Mafia III by Hangar 13
If you traveled back in time six months and told past-me that Mafia III would be one of my favorite games of the year, I’d have cheerfully A) asked after your wonderous time machine and B) said you were nuts.
Hangar 13’s debut game appears, on its surface, to be an unremarkable open-world game about gangsters, with little to set it apart from all the other open-world gangster games beyond a novel setting.
But what a setting it is! I lived in Louisiana for a time, and while the city we called home bore little resemblance to Mafia III’s simulacrum of late-’60s New Orleans, there are little details that feel right: the color of the light, for one, or the stark flatness of the landscape.
The game’s design also does a great job at conveying, through systems, some small piece of what I think it must feel like to be a mixed-race man living in the South. For example, there are two separate on-screen indicators that show the player where danger is -- one is a standard red reticle that appears during combat and spikes in different directions to indicate where enemies (and damage) are coming from, while the other is a blue reticle that shows the player where nearby police are and how strongly they’re looking at you.
In just about every other open-world game, that latter indicator would only appear when the player had committed a crime and was being hunted by police. In Mafia III, the police indicator is a constant -- it will always appear and show you that the police are watching you, even if you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s a simple but effective system, one that serves a useful gameplay purpose (by informing the player when they should step carefully) while also fostering an oppressive feeling of judgement.
Overwatch by Blizzard Entertainment
Overwatch is Blizzard’s first all-new game in over a decade, and from where I’m sitting, it’s the studio’s greatest achievement since World of Warcraft.
Born from the ashes of the studio’s ill-fated Titan project, this colorful, cheerfully competitive team-based shooter was a (surprise!) highlight of my year. Overwatch is in many ways a new spin on the game design Valve popularized with Team Fortress 2 (which, incidentally, was released nine years ago and is still going strong), but I think it excels in many areas where TF2 falls short: the level design is more interesting, character abilities allow players to make greater use of every level’s airspace, and the scope of the abilities themselves allow for more intriguing, varied match-ups.
Plus all the characters are great, the writing and acting is almost always on point, and the whole package just oozes charm.
Sorcery! by Inkle Studios
Inkle Studios is best known for creating the interactive fiction game 80 Days, and deservedly so -- that game is amazing and helped earn Inkle a spot among our top devs of 2014. But alongside 80 Days Inkle has been steadily releasing a four-part video game adaptation of Steve Jackson’s ‘80s gamebook series Sorcery!, and it’s a fantastic adaptation.
The final quarter of Sorcery! was released on PC and mobile platforms this year, and it perfectly captures what those old gamebooks could convey when they were firing all cylinders: a feeling of getting drawn into another world hidden between the pages of a book, and having the freedom to chart your own course through the plot. This was a long, painful year for me personally, and in a particularly dark portion I was traveling and bereft of any distractions beyond my phone. That’s when I played through the Sorcery! games; they were like a little bundle of light and heat that warmed me against the cold.
Titanfall 2 by Respawn Entertainment
I love robots, the bigger the better. In Titanfall 2 multiplaye you can actually play as a killer robot that climbs inside another, bigger killer robot, so it’s pretty much the best killer robot game ever made.
I don’t really play first-person shooters anymore (this year was a weird exception!) and when I do, it’s never anything in the vein of a console military FPS like Call of Duty. Titanfall 2 managed to crack that disinterest and draw me in, to the point that I’ve wrapped the campaign and played enough multiplayer to hit the level ladder cap and “respawn” -- only to start climbing again.
Tyranny by Obsidian Entertainment
Obsidian’s latest, an isometric Baldur’s Gate-esque RPG that puts player in the boots of an evil empire’s willing servant, is a bit of a must-play for anyone with an interest in video game narrative. I thought I’d have a tough time approaching Tyranny at the tail end of a year in which so much of the world seemed to embrace the evil and the authoritarian, but for better or worse, it quickly felt normal.
Tyranny explores the breadth and banality of evil, poking fun at the notion of a monolithic “evil empire.” It affords players opportunity and time to crawl around inside the machine they’re so often tasked with raging against, poking at all the different pieces to see what makes them tick. It doesn’t always succeed, but its failure are just as intriguing (if not more so) than its successes. It’s a good game, I think, but better than that, it’s an interesting piece of work.
Honorable Mention: Everyone who shipped a game this year.
Hungry for more 2016 best-of? Gamasutra published its Top 10 Games of 2016, Top 10 Game Developers of 2016, Top 5 Trends of 2016 and Top 5 Events that shaped the year. Gamasutra contributors also each wrote up a personal top-five list -- and you can read them here: Kris Graft, Bryant Francis, Katherine Cross, Chris Baker, Alissa McAloon, Chris Kerr, Phill Cameron, and Brandon Sheffield.