Kris Graft (@krisgraft) is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra
Wow, I liked video games a lot in 2016. In past years, Gamasutra staff and contributors would list their personal top five games of the year. 2016 had such a huge range of quality games that it didn’t feel right choosing just five. So here I am with my 10 (and even at 10, it was difficult for me to narrow it down).
I’d also like to take a moment to thank all of our readers and bloggers who this year, once again, made Gamasutra a special place to share and exchange ideas about all aspects of game creation. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of talking to smart, enthusiastic game makers, or reading about how you all go through the ridiculously complicated process of bringing these things into existence. So, yeah…thanks!
Here are my top 10 games of the year.
AudioShield by Dylan Fitterer
This can be fun and social, I swear.
Strapping a mask to your face in the middle of a room full of people doesn’t seem like the most social thing to do, but AudioShield surprised me with how VR can be social, even without online multiplayer. Developed by the same guy who did AudioSurf, AudioShield also turns your songs into a rhythm game.
It’s a simple concept: You stand on a virtual stage, and you block rhythmic balls that splash against the two shields you wield with each hand. When you have music playing out of your speakers, and the visuals on display for all to see, you have a social gathering. AudioShield was my party game of the year, and it's a perfect way to introduce people to VR.
Clash Royale by Supercell
*freeze frame* pic.twitter.com/zawrgFqEah— Freeze Frame Bot (@freezeframebot) November 15, 2016
Yup, that's me (via Freeze Frame bot, obviously).
Clash Royale takes everything great about competitive real-time strategy games and condenses that into three-minute long matches. Monetization in this free-to-play game isn’t so heavy-handed to make you hate it, rather paid upgrades are just an option you have to further enjoy the experience. The clan I play in is 50-people full, and decks are largely varied among members, who can easily share replays or watch live matches via a seamless interface.
Clash Royale makes the cut because of expert distillation and adaptation of broad game design and genre concepts; finely-tuned systems that encourage players to keep coming back without being blatantly exploitative; and a level of polish above most other mobile game studios. It was one of my most-played games of 2016, and I’ll keep playing well into 2017.
Darkest Dungeon by Red Hook Studios
I imagine voice actor Wayne June was moving his eyebrows around a lot when recording this voiceover.
Darkest Dungeon is the game for tactics RPG fans who just don’t have time for tiles; something like Final Fantasy Tactics: Arcade. Darkest Dungeon is less about positioning your characters and more about fast loops, and preparing your party for the absolute worst.
There’s also the clever stress system that adds yet another layer of uncertainty and anxiety. Having a prepared party sometimes means you need to give your favorite character a break, and send her to the bar or the brothel to ease the trauma of dungeon crawling. Darkest Dungeon is as brilliant and satisfying as it is bleak and unforgiving.
Doom by id Software
Order now and enjoy such classics as "Rip & Tear," "Rust, Dust & Guts," and "SkullHacker."
It was a long time coming, having gone through one major, unreleased iteration in Doom 4, but Doom 2016 delivered on what made the original so revered. It stands tall among today’s shooters, but retains the elements that make Doom, Doom. Fast, gory, precise, and overall super crunchy, Doom uses the franchise’s legacy as a strong inspiration rather than a template to blindly follow.
id Sofware identified the spirit of Doom, stuck to those core values throughout development, and conveyed that in an FPS that pays homage while feeling thoroughly modern. It’s the best-feeling shooter of the year. (Also: that Mick Gordon metal soundtrack, yeah.)
Duskers by Misfits Attic
Roleplaying as a search drone operator comes pretty naturally with Duskers (vid via Door Monster).
People talk about virtual reality like it’s the pinnacle of immersion in the realm of video games. But few games are as immersive as Duskers, which tells you that your computer at your desk in your house is mission control for deep-space probes that have the perilous task of clearing out derelict spaceships.
Not only am I a sucker for games where the player’s screen is the game’s screen (role-playing as a coffee-slurping underpaid drone operator at your desk is fun), but the way Duskers deliberately conveys its themes is surprisingly effective. Fear, loneliness, disappointment, anxiety, (and occasionally) relief are all deeply ingrained in this uniquely strategic roguelike.
The Last Guardian by GenDesign / SIE Japan Studio
Trico hates me.
The Last Guardian is so full of technical flaws, some of which could be attributed to a tumultuous, famously long development cycle, some of it due to choices made by Fumito Ueda. The camera is awful, the level design is incredibly unintuitive, your beastly companion Trico is unwieldy. So that leaves me to ask, why does this belong on my list?
The best answer I can come up with is that Ueda’s vision of companionship shined bright enough that The Last Guardian’s flaws didn’t matter much to me. Trico is the most emotive companion ever in a video game – even when uncooperative, it’s easy to just chalk that up to a streak of disobedience that any dog or cat owner is familiar with (classic “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” scenario). Having a companion like Trico gives you motivation and reason to push through obstacles, both intentionally- and unintentionally-designed. No other game this year had an NPC that I cared about more than that stubborn cat-bird-dogasaur.
No Man’s Sky by Hello Games
No Man’s Sky probably would’ve made my top 10 even if Hello Games didn’t release the big Foundation update, which thoroughly prettied things up and added base-building. Being able to fly around and explore the universe with virtually no pressure to complete arbitrary goals and challenges is an experience I needed this year in games.
No Man’s Sky is as immersive as you want it to be, but is also non-invasive to your life. It's non-demanding, unassuming, and thoroughly beautiful. That’s not to mention it's a technical achievement and full of surprises. No Man’s Sky has a way of piquing my curiosity, imploring me to land on the surface of that undiscovered planet, making me feel like an explorer on the frontier of space.
Rez Infinite by Monstars / Enhance Games
I'll never be as cool as this video game (and neither will YOU).
I’m one of those people who didn’t play the original Rez. If it ever came up in conversation, I’d just nod politely. Now that I’ve played Rez Infinite on PSVR, I understand why this game has such a following. The first few levels of Rez Infinite are noteworthy enough, combining Panzer Dragoon-type mechanics and a classic Space Harrier vibe, where action, sound, and sight are all in tune with one another.
But it’s late in the game where you ascend beyond “shooter” and are taken through an audio-visual narrative that is existential and thoroughly uplifting. Rez Infinite made me feel something in a way that not many video games are capable.
Superhot by Superhot Team
Still room to innovate in the dude-with-a-gun genre.
Born out of the week-long 7 Day FPS Challenge game jam, I wasn’t sure if Superhot would be able to hold my attention for more than a few minutes. The game’s mechanical premise is ingeniously simple: time moves when you move. Not only is that a great line when explaining how the game works, it also works in practice.
It’s true: it’s an FPS where time moves when you move, and Superhot Team drilled down into that mechanic and polished it to a blinding sheen. But the team went far beyond that, using that mechanic as the foundation for Superhot’s unmistakable style, and a surprisingly engaging narrative that is a bit of commentary about the medium of video games. Superhot ultimately shows that innovation can happen in the dude-with-a-gun genre.
Thumper by Drool
Best beetle-based game since Beetle Adventure Racing.
The marketing term used for Thumper has been “rhythm violence,” and it’s absolutely fitting. Thumper rewards precision visually and aurally, making you feel like you’re not just tapping buttons to a beat, but rather influencing the composition of the percussion-heavy music, at the same time destroying everything in your path.
When you play Thumper, you’re just pressing a button and combining that with a direction, at designated points on a track. That physical simplicity allows you to lose your senses to the game, as you’re shoved down the throat of a grotesque monster. Thumper is the perfect intersection audio-visual intensity; it’s synesthesia on a hard drive.
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: Alex Wawro, Bryant Francis, Katherine Cross, Chris Baker, Alissa McAloon, Chris Kerr, Phill Cameron, and Brandon Sheffield.