Stop me if you've heard this one: A farmer, a hitman and a little boy all walk into a bar. Everything's moving in slow motion, so the bartender's like, "Dishonored? I hardly even know 'er!"
No but seriously, folks, 2016 was a pretty great year for games. I had a hard time narrowing down my favourite games of the year, but I decided not to cheat like I have in past years (see: 2013, 2014, 2015) and to really hold myself to 10.
Here they are, in no particular order.
SUPERHOT + SUPERHOT VR
When it comes to action games, I'm usually the weak link. I have the tools I need, I'm just not fast or coordinated enough. I've long loved video games that creatively use slow-mo to compensate for my own poor reflexes, from my gobsmacked first hours with Max Payne to horseback sharpshooting in Red Dead Redemption.
Enter SUPERHOT, a game that takes place entirely in slow motion. I loved it for the discipline with which its creators explored their central idea, and for just how well they got that idea working for them by the time the credits rolled. Bonus points for spinning it out into SUPERHOT VR, a natural fit for the game and easily one of the best VR games I played all year.
Can a video game level win a Game of the Year award? If so, Hitman's Italian villa deserves consideration. Sapienza is the crown jewel of a game that thrived throughout the year on tremendous level design. Over the past several months I've gotten to know it — and Paris, and Marrakesh, and Bangkok — like the back of Agent 47's barcoded head.
If I had to draw a picture of my time with Hitman, I'd draw two expansive areas with a narrow tunnel in between. It starts as an open-ended game that rewards improvisation as much as it does careful study. It grows more constrained as you progress through specific challenges and escalation targets, at some points echoing the restrictive design of its terrific mobile iteration, Hitman GO.
Then, when the challenges are complete and the escalations mastered, it opens back up again for one last hurrah. Hitman's one-shot elusive targets channel many hours of repetition and mastery into a crucible that demands preparedness and improvisation. Rarely have I seen a game so capably play the people who play it.
I almost think that INSIDE's name is a subtle troll. It's a title so dull that you forget it almost as soon as you see it, which certainly cannot be said of the unforgettable game to which it is attached. Throughout the year I struggled to make the name work in headlines, since statements like "You Really Should Play Inside" fail to communicate the intended message. I eventually decided following its stylisation and putting it in ALL CAPS would have to do. An imperfect solution.
INSIDE begins with a low note of dread that builds into a haunting dirge, then a scream of horror, then finally collapses into gales of hysterical laughter. I was and remain awestruck.
The more I put into Dishonored 2, the more it gives back. My first few hours were nothing special; frustrating, even. I found the game to be mired in PC performance issues and lacking its predecessor's creative spark. I kept playing. I gradually came to better appreciate and understand how intricately its pieces fit together, and my admiration gave way to outright adoration right around the point where I spent a half an hour solving an elaborate LSAT-style logic puzzle. I'm now more than 40 hours in, nearing the halfway point on my first New Game Plus playthrough. The game has fully opened up to me, like an elaborate room in Kirin Jindosh's infamous clockwork mansion.
Dishonored 2 sits at a three-way intersection between fantastic level design, complex artificial intelligence and an expansive toolkit of gadgets and magical abilities. This is a game meant to be replayed and mastered, and each time I test its limits, I'm surprised at how far I can push it. I'm already planning a self-imposed ruleset for my third playthrough, and I doubt I'll stop there. Sometimes it's worth sticking with a game through a rocky launch.
It's a cute little game about farming, they said. It's like Harvest Moon, they said. You like Animal Crossing, right? It's like that. Little did I know what I was getting myself into, that Eric Barone's one-man tribute to small town livin' would wind up munching my weekend afternoons like so many chips.
I wish I hadn't stopped playing this game. I wish I was playing it right now. In a year that repeatedly reminded me how little control I have over just about anything, Stardew Valley's orderly, pocket-sized society was a balm. Anyone else want to unplug from the internet, move to an idyllic small town and start farming? I'm being serious.
Somewhere in the past decade or so, enemies stopped mattering as much in first-person shooters. It's probably Call of Duty's fault; most things are. Waves of indistinguishable soldiers would pour out of doorways and helicopters, dark blotches and muzzle flashes spotted through an ACOG sight before vanishing in an indistinct splash of blood.
Among other foundational lessons Doom re-evaluates 20 years after the fact, this game remembers that clearly differentiated enemies matter. These ones mob you and throw fireballs, while this one chases you and shakes the earth. This one rushes and chews off your face, while this one teleports around the room. Thus waves of reinforcements can dramatically change the dynamic of a given fight, even as the game's brilliant chainsaw + melee system encourages you to surge forward without pausing for breath.
Each of Doom's many combat encounters shifts and recalibrates itself within a defined space, like clicking gears on a finely tuned watch. A finely tuned watch filled with THE BLOOD OF THE DAMNED [dank guitar riff].
Dark Souls 3
My journey into the Souls universe began with Bloodborne, which makes Dark Souls 3 the second full Souls game I've played. A fairly common trajectory, perhaps, and blessedly free of the weighty expectations and arcane baggage carried by those who have already soldiered through Souls both Demon's and Dark.
I loved Dark Souls 3. Some people play these games for the bosses, others for the ceaselessly entertaining PvP. I play for the exploration, the feeling that I'm slowly pouring the black goop of my mind into an ant farm of level design. The goop hardens and expands as I repeatedly creep through each new area, spiralling outward in search of secrets to uncover and enemies to vanquish. Time and again I'm rewarded with discoveries I missed the first, or tenth, time. As I slowly committed Dark Souls 3 to memory, I found I could bend it to my will. What a feeling.
I still haven't learned how to play XCOM the "right" way, living with my mistakes and losing men and women in the field. I still save the game at every turn, and when one of my beloved troopers goes down for the count, I can't help but reload and try again. I'll admit it! I grow too attached to my soldiers, which can be seen as a success or a failure of XCOM 2, depending on how you look at it.
The sequel significantly improves on its already good predecessor — as it turned out, playing a scrappy insurgency that goes up against an evil power embedded within our culture was thematically on point for 2016. Mechanically, we got enough major changes in pacing and tactics that the first XCOM already feels pokey and dated, and I can already imagine other clever ways Firaxis might change things up in the future. If they want to crank out a new one of these every few years, I'm on board.
I have loved so many different Overwatches over the course of the year. I loved the Overwatch where my friends and I would all play as Torbjorn on PS4, mercilessly cheesing the other team into submission. I loved the Overwatch where I learned to play as Tracer, zipping around behind enemy lines and outflanking my opponents at every turn. I loved the Overwatch that finally gave my girl D.Va her due, where I could bully my way in and out of battle like a rocket-powered zeppelin. I loved switching to PC and discovering Soldier 76's Overwatch, all hops and skips and long-range rocket shots. I've most recently fallen in love with Mercy's Overwatch, where I can use everything I've learned about the levels and my teammates' capabilities to lift my team to victory. I've never fallen in love with so many versions of a single game. I can't wait to see what version I play next.
Playing Thumper is like drowning, but in a good way. You're sucked into this vortex of neon tar, and your only real option is to hold on for dear life and plunge ever deeper. My tastes in music games have evidently shifted over the last several years. I no longer want to re-create performances of my favourite classic rock and pop tunes. I want to push forward with something new. Brian Gibson's music seamlessly fits into Thumper's finely tuned visuo-mechanical milieu, and the more I played the more I felt I had been drawn inside the music itself. This must be what an electron feels like as it leaps through a metal guitarist's amp.
Honorable Mentions: The Witness, Shadow Warrior 2, The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, Titanfall 2, Civilisation VI, House of the Dying Sun, Battlefield 1, probably a couple more that I forgot.
Thanks to everyone who read along with me this year! Here's hoping 2017 has just as many good games as 2016 did.