Chris Baker is the assignment editor for Gamasutra
Abzu by Giant Squid
The knock on this game is that it's a retread of Flower and Journey--yet another meditative, flow-centric chill-out. affair. I think it managed to create a distinctive aesthetic and play experience.
The vast undersea levels have a verticality that those other games lacked, and the array of real aquatic species made this as fascinating as a Discovery channel documentary, even if you were just sitting back and watching the various creatures swim around, and occasionally pause to eat each other.
When world events got stressful and chaotic and depressing this year, I found myself revisting Abzu. I can vouch for the restorative powers of its waters.
Firewatch by Campo Santo
I feel very lucky that I knew very little about this game before I played it, except that it had a lovely color palette. It was a memorable and moving experience that I'm hoping to revisit over the holidays. I'm delighted that this game was made, and that it found an apppreciative audience.
Imbroglio by Michael Brough
I sampled a lot of mobile games this year--hello Clash Royale--but this is the one that I spent the most time with. Every time I launched it, I promised myself that I would try to play it with critical distance, so that I could appreciate the brilliant minimalist design. But I kept getting so wrapped up in trying to defeat my foes and extend the length of my play sessions that I forgot to apply rigorous critical analysis. In honor of the ingenious simplicity of Michael Brough's formula, I will simply say: it is good.
Inside by Playdead
I loved Playdead's last game Limbo, but I guess I can understand why some found it schticky. I really can't understand why anyone wouldn't find Playdead's followup compelling. The art design, the pacing, the level design, the sound design--every element of the play experience was a master class in creating atmosphere and orchestrating indelible moments. It's sort of amazing how the game's grisly fail states could induce a powerful sense of dread, then a moment of sharp horror, and then an increasingly powerful tone of macabre black humor as I died again and again in traumatic fashions while groping my way toward a solution to the latest environmental puzzle.
The Last Guardian by GenDesign / SIE Japan Studio
The people who say this game is broken are not heartless monsters. There are serious issues with the camera and the controls, and I spent more time being frustrated than I did being elated by it. But I've never felt a connection to a game character like I did with Trico. I hate to make pronouncements like this, but I really think that the character is going to be one of the main things that people remember about games in 2016. (Pro tip: It helps if you think of Trico as a cat-like creature, not a dog-like creature. Going in with that mindset makes it more explicable when it continually ignores you and wanders off when you call it and seems to pointedly ignore you or obstinately do the opposite of what you want it to do.)
Overwatch by Blizzard
The last time I got so deeply hooked by a team multiplayer shooter was Team Fortress 2, and I'm hardly the first to point out the similarities. Both games are incredibly polished. Both have colorful, rich, clearly defined set of characters with distinctive silhouettes that you can clearly recognize from halfway across the map.
I had as much fun watching Overwatch as I did playing it. And I'm not alone--a friend of mine who loathes shooters got sucked into the Grand Finals matches that were televised on TBS, and raved to me the next day about how beautiful the characters and levels were, and how the action was so exciting and coherent compared to the herky jerky chaos of CS:GO matches she'd seen.
Pokemon Go by Niantic
There’s an ancient hand-painted advertisement on the side of a building near my workplace in downtown San Francisco. It had been shielded from the elements for almost a century by a neighboring warehouse, but it was recently exposed to the light of day again when that adjacent structure was demolished. The ad exhorts passersby to sample a bygone foodstuff called Carnation Mush, a mixture of milk and grains in a can that was sold as a convenient breakfast back in the Roaring Twenties. I walked past this quaint relic hundreds of times without ever really paying much attention to it.
That is, I never took note of it until it showed up as the site of a Gym in Pokemon Go.
As I played, I learned more about this neighborhood that I have lived in for 15 years. I snag a potion at a Pokestop in front of a Ukrainian Orthodox church, and wonder how I had failed to ever notice this building with the gleaming golden dome before. I pause to capture a Geodude outside of an unusual museum that features the artworks of a Pasadena man who claims to be the reincarnation of Buddha, and chat with some other players who are also there to capture this Rock Pokemon.
The game got me very excited about the potential of location-based AR gaming.
Pony Island by Daniel Mullin Games
I went into this game knowing absolutely nothing about it, and had one of the most enjoyable play experiences of the year. I don't want to spoil it, but I'll just note that it does a great job of simulating chaos and randomness and dysfunction, while never making you feel lost or overwhelmed. It's constantly surprising and constantly funny, it works a series of very nice twists on its clever high concept, and it's exactly as long as it should be.
There've been a lot of terrific games this year about hacking and coding (Shenzen I/O, Quadrilateral Cowboy, etc.) But none of them gave me the concentrated dose of pleasure that this game did. If you haven't played it, don't read anything about it--just know that it deserves a place on your Steam wishlist.
Reigns by Nerial
I played this game for 3500 years.
The simple art style was incredibly compelling. The binary choices and the swipe interface were the cleverest mobile innovations I saw all year. The limited card sets created a wealth of generative storylines, and the deeper multigenerational story elements wer a continual source of surprise and delight. I found the mix of absurdity, humor, strategy, and genuine wickedness to be provocative.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End by Naughty Dog
This game is a thrill ride, and I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment. Many of its setpieces are as carefully orchestrated and as linear as an amusement park attraction. But man oh man, when the thrill ride is as polished and brilliantly executed as Uncharted 4, I never have a moment to pause and whine pretentiously about how I prefer the increased agency afforded to me by a more free-roaming emergent sandbox experience that blah blah yadda yadda.
As I was grappling with the frustrating aspects of The Last Guardian, I found myself thinking back to the experience of playing this game: The buttery smooth controls, the subtle but clear signposting, the camera that I almost never had to think about because it was always in the right place. The level of polish and precision and care that went into this game is astonishing. The story and the the writing were also so good that I was put off by the next few games I played that had dialogue that was merely adequate.
Can't get enough of our year end lists? Here's our Top 10 Games of 2016, Top 10 Trends of 2016, Top 10 News Events of 2016, as well as personal top 10 lists from each Gamasutra staffer. Editor-in-chief Kris Graft's list is here. News editor Alex Wawro's list is here. Contributing writer Katherine Cross' list is here.Senior contributing editor Brandon Sheffield's list is here. Contributing editor Bryant Francis' list is here. News reporter Alissa McAlloon's list is here. UK editor Phill Cameron's list is here.