2016 has been an odd year for video games. Everyone you ask will either think it was the best year for games in a long time, or not even worth mentioning.
Unlike Serrels, I couldn't quite find 12 games to put on my list (let alone 13 like Alex!) In fact, only one or two games immediately came to mind when I was putting the list together, though the rest came back to me the longer I thought about it.
In fact, my year in games has been characterised by short, self-contained experiences that can be played over a day or a weekend — only one proper AAA game actually made it into my list. Most of my games also seem to be exploratory and largely non-violent, even in a year where most would agree that the standout games of the year were the shooters. So without further ado, here they are:
I wrote about Reigns briefly in another 2016 roundup, and it just managed to scrape into my top ten list again. I first heard about it when Alex briefly mentioned it on the podcast, and the concept was interesting enough to warrant the $3 purchase.
As with most mobile games, the concept is pretty simple: you're the ruler of a kingdom and everyone comes to you with their problems and requests. You mostly just have to swipe right to agree or swipe left to decline. Each card represents one year, and as the years tick on, your swiping becomes more fast-paced, more instinctive, as you struggle to keep the balance of power. You die pretty often.
Pokemon GO aside, Reigns was one of the first games that really got me involved on mobile, to the point where I would shun both my PC and PS4 to play Reigns on the couch at home. Though the graphics are simple, there's something about the concept that manages to be as evocative as a historical fantasy book or movie. Fittingly, in my first playthrough I managed to break the cycle and die forever in exactly 2016. Congratulations, me.
9. HTC Vive
This might be considered cheating, but it's a solution to two problems I had while compiling this list: 1. VR (more specifically, on the Vive) was so formative to my year in games that it couldn't not be included, and 2. no one game on Steam VR was really worth its own spot.
The Vive is amazing. I have had nights where I've played for hours and hours without ever peeking out of the headset once. Room Scale is the perfect way to make sure you can stay centered in your play space without going off banging into furniture and walls. Nothing feels better than filling a virtual space with pulsating, neon graffiti in Tilt Brush, or hanging out with a robot puppy for a few hours in Valve's multifaceted playhouse, The Lab.
The only problem is that it all still feels like an extended tech demo.
All the best games available on the Vive right now are either a collection of mini-games (ie. The Lab or Job Simulator) or just one short game (like Accounting). A Reddit post by DayZ developer Dean Hall explains why this might be, but in the meantime owners of terribly expensive VR headsets are just champing at the bit for a longer, more involved VR experience. Hopefully in 2017 we'll see the release of longer, more narrative-driven games like the upcoming Earthlight.
Abzû was one of those games that appeared at exactly the right time for me — it was the middle of winter, I was tired and half dead from a bad cold that had gone around the office. In the middle of my worst sick day I loaded up this game that had appeared with so little fanfare and just disappeared into it.
Abzû is all of the beauty of every water level ever, without any of the stress. It's a meditative game full of beauty, which doesn't really press you with the threat of failure or 'game over'. The soundtrack by Austin Wintory is as divine as you'd expect if you've heard the Journey soundtrack.
The game is full of little moments of joy — like hitching a ride with a dolphin and leaping out of the water again and again, drawing the whole pod of dolphins along with you. A lot of its best moments are moments of discovery — swimming around a corner to find whale sharks or manatees or manta rays; each new area a would-be scuba diver's dream.
Abzû is one of those rare games that celebrates nature, depicting the ocean in all her moods, whether bright and cheerful reefs or deep, eerie trenches where the light can't reach. Not only that, it's one of the few things ever where the great white isn't the 'bad guy'. Good on ya, Abzû.
7. Layers Of Fear
This game just popped up on PSN one day, and quietly proceeded to be the best horror game of the year. As a fan of psychological horror, it managed to mix a little Amnesia and a pinch of PT, while still managing to be a game all of its own.
You play as a somewhat maniacal painter trying to create his masterpiece, and having to face his own horrors on the way. Instead of relying on supernatural monsters or demons for a scare, it's a game about the darkness of humanity, the horrors of a haunted mind descending into madness.
What's admirable about Layers Of Fear is the creativity in the many ways it tries to scare you (and trust me, there are many, many ways). This game has some of the most unique and effective jump scares of any horror I've ever played, and it even manages to make creepy dolls not feel like a total cop out. Interspersed among the gore and mess and mould you expect in horror are a few oddly beautiful moments, scenes that inspire a sense of wonder while keeping you on edge for the next scare.
Layers Of Fear also got a pretty solid DLC added to it a few months back — a sequel called Inheritance, in which you revisit the scene as the main character's daughter, this time exploring his questionable sanity from a different perspective. Both the game and DLC are well worth a play — or watching someone else play, if you're not great with horror.
Thumper is billed as 'rhythm violence', which doesn't make much sense until you actually play the game. The minute you jump into its terrifying metallic world you will realise: yes, there is such a thing as rhythm violence, and it is badass.
Thumper is what you would get if you crossed a horror game with a rhythm game, and chucked in some extra bass for good measure. The soundtrack isn't quite music, but it's certainly rhythm, and I often found myself tapping out certain common beats from the game for days on end after playing it.
Like all good rhythm games, Thumper feels so, so good when you get it. The point where you relax into the call-and-response style of the game is almost orgasmic as you tap out combo after combo with perfect timing.
While it's available for PSVR, I've only played the Steam version — I can only imagine it'll be that much more intense in VR.
The only reason Thumper isn't higher on my list is because I'm kind of terrible at it, and never got past level four. Sorry Thumper.
5. Pokemon GO
There was no way I couldn't include Pokemon GO in this list. Most people will probably disagree with it being up this high, but I honestly can't think of another game that has ever had such an impact on both my life and the world at large.
Has there been any other game where you could walk past someone on the street and exchange a look, knowing you were both chasing after the same Pikachu? Where you could go up to a cluster of Pokestops and just hang out with other like-minded fans, or attend a giant walk through the CBD with thousands of other people?
Pokemon GO quite literally changed my life, even if it was only for a month or so. Even Wii Fit didn't get me as active as Pokemon GO did — during the three weeks when I was most active in the game, I got 10,000 steps on my Fitbit every single day. Even after working in this office for almost a year, Pokemon GO could still take me down streets I'd never seen before.
And surprisingly, even after a few quiet months, I'm finding that I'm still not done with Pokemon GO. After the initial rush, Niantic seems to be finally settling in for the long run, organising events, releasing new Pokemon and tightening up an admittedly flawed game system. I'm excited to see where it goes next.
4. King's Quest
I'm consistently surprised that more people haven't played the recent reboot of King's Quest. An episodic game developed by The Odd Gentlemen, the first episode was actually released in 2015, but the last three installments (including the final chapter) came out this year. King's Quest was the first episodic game that had me waiting with bated breath for the next chapter to come out, and I'm genuinely disappointed that it's finished.
The new game is essentially a reboot of Sierra's classic King's Quest series, which last got a game all the way back in 1998. The new one manages to be appealing both to old fans (with plenty of cheeky references) and people who've never touched a King's Quest game — especially if you're a fan of say, Princess Bride (which itself gets a decent handful of call outs in the script).
The game has a pretty impressive voice cast — with large roles going to the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Wallace Shawn and Zelda Williams. It doesn't waste this talent either, with a wickedly funny script full of clever references and magnificently awful puns. Despite this it's not afraid to be serious occasionally, with a smattering of touching and outright sad moments.
If you've never played a King's Quest game, the best I can describe it is: imagine if The Princess Bride was a Telltale game, but with more logic puzzles and (actual) branching paths. Which reminds me, I should go back and replay it on a different story path...
3. Far Cry Primal
After having this game on my list since last year, I only started playing it in the last few weeks. The longer I've delayed writing up this list (sorry, Alex), the further it's crept up in my rankings, as I find myself sucked further and further into its Stone Age world.
At the time of writing, I have about 18 hours in the game, but I've barely completed ten per cent of the game's story quests. Far Cry Primal is just such a successful open world that I'm happy to spend hours and hours riding around on sabertooth tigers and hunting deadly fauna for no other reason than because I can.
I'm not sure if the game is light on story or if that's just me avoiding story missions (whoops) but what story there is feels a little bit like a prehistoric Dragon Age: Inquisition. You and a fellow kinswoman decide to start a new village for your people, after they had all been massacred out by a vicious neighbouring clan.
You save people and send them back into your fledgling village — whether nameless NPCs or character 'specialists' who help you unlock new skills. You're rewarded by seeing your village grow from literally a single woman in a cave to a huge, thriving community with kids running underfoot and festive mammoth skulls bedecking the canyon walls.
Of course it's the 'tame' mechanic that makes it for me. You can tame a variety of wild cats, wolves and bears throughout the game, including beasts with rare colourations or special traits. While you can send this animal off to attack people for you (think Assassin Creed: Brotherhood's minion assassins), or even ride some of them around the map, you're also given an option to 'pet' your tamed beasts, for no real reason other than because it's cute.
Far Cry Primal really gets something right about building bonds and community in a game, not to mention creating an open world where things feel lived-in and real. Hunts are challenging and satisfying, as are the small stealth sections where you take enemy outposts for your own. But more than anything — you can tame a sabertooth tiger! Who doesn't want that in a game?
A January release, Oxenfree was my first 'must-buy' of the year, and it stayed one of my favourite games throughout.
If you listen to Steam, it's also my most played game at 102 hours but I'm pretty sure that's a bug. I've actually only played about six hours of Oxenfree, but it's still stuck with me after just one short playthrough. It's the sort of game that you immediately buy copies of for your friends just so you can talk about it — one that you keenly ask 'what ending did you get?' though most people don't even realise that their ending isn't the only one.
Everything from the voice acting to the script to the soundtrack and the gorgeous design works together to create a game that manages to be fun and playful one moment, and creepy and unsettling the next.
Night School Studios also released a 'New Game+' option to coincide with its PS4 release a few months ago, adding extra content depending on what ending you got the first time. I've been meaning to replay it for pretty much the entire year. Maybe now's the time to get around to it.
I love Firewatch. It's the combination of a lot of other things that I also love: hiking, interesting characters, the outdoors, story-heavy games, branching dialogue. It's a 6-ish hour descent into the minds of two people who are largely alone in the wilderness: sometimes paranoid, sometimes drunk, sometimes flirty. You adopt a turtle named 'Turt Reynolds'.
I've probably played Firewatch at least four times this year, and shared it with my friends many more times again. It's my wallpaper for both my computer and my phone. It's just one of those games that I can disappear into whenever life has me down. Maybe the ending won't leave you happy, but for me, the game as a whole is a beautiful, cathartic experience.
While it's not a long game, it has plenty of breadth, as I discovered from my many playthroughs. I mined the game for its secrets, wondering what would happen if you never spoke about your wife, or if you just never spoke to Delilah at all, or if you're always as friendly as possible. I'm sure I still haven't found all the dialogue options despite how hard I try.
I'm excited to play more games like Firewatch in the future — games that aren't afraid to be as little like a 'game' as possible, games that are content to be what they are without piling on the features. Games about people.