It’s New Year’s Eve. Usually the end of the year is bittersweet, but it also provides some kind of relief. We made it through another year, now let’s make the next one better, we tell ourselves. The start of a new year always feels like a fresh start of sorts, a chance to wipe the slate clean of whatever baggage the previous one left behind. It’s what’s allowed me to meet each new year hopeful that things will change for the better. After all, whatever hardships we faced in the past year are just that: in the past. The new year provides a good starting point to put all that behind us and move forward, confident that we can make positive change both for ourselves and the world around us.
But after how dreadful this year was, I don’t know if that’s possible anymore.
When we look back on 2016 years from now, I think everyone will agree it was a total disaster. While there may have been plenty of highs, the lows were utterly crushing. It was a constant torrent of tragedies: the losses of beloved artists, the constant mass shootings and terrorist attacks, the ever looming threat of climate change, the rise of fascism, and so much more. Every time I thought it couldn’t possibly get worse, every time I thought that maybe – just maybe – things would work out for the best, I was proven wrong.
No matter where you look, things are bleak; the US and the election of a literal fascist, the UK and Brexit being just a couple of examples. The future is uncertain, now more than ever before. I don’t think anyone can begin to predict what the coming years hold. Before you could always maybe sort of have some idea of what’s on the horizon. Now? No clue.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so terrified – for myself, my friends, my family… for everyone. The world’s made it through tough times before, but these next four years feel like they’re going to be a nightmare like we’ve never seen before. The world finally feels like it’s on the edge of falling apart and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Maybe things will somehow work out. I hope so – I really, really do – but at this point… I don’t know anymore.
Back in January, I was so hopeful that 2016 would be a good year, that it would be the year things finally change for the better. God. If only I knew how misplaced that hope was.
…Anyway. Videogames, huh? There were a ton of good ones this year. Here’s some that were highlights for me.
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so deep into a multiplayer shooter like I have with Overwatch. As of this writing, I’ve clocked over 160 hours in across hundreds and hundreds of matches. It’s a game I’ve played almost daily since launch, with no signs of slowing down. There’s plenty of reasons for this. It’s diverse cast of characters, that it’s been able to draw almost my entire family in despite many of them typically expressing zero interest in shooters of any form, or the fact that it’s just an all-around good, smartly-designed game.
But what’s really made me stick around is its relentless positivity. Between the frequent quips from characters lauding you on a good shot, the end of match accolades, and the play of the game feature, Overwatch goes out of its way to promote everyone’s contributions, no matter how small they seem. It goes a long way toward making you feel like you did your part. Win or lose it never drops that positive outlook, never stops making everyone feel like they did their part and did it well. Where so many other multiplayer games only reward the best of the best, Overwatch’s inclusive attitude is a welcome change.
Best moment: Getting friends and family together for some games for the first time.
9. Darkest Dungeon
My first playthrough for Darkest Dungeon took me a hundred hours of the course of a month. It is one of the most difficult, grueling games I’ve played to date. It was also my go-to pick for Game of the Year for several months. Then a bunch of other games came along and ousted it from that position. But whatever; Darkest Dungeon is good.
Darkest Dungeon is one of those rare games where I enjoyed the intense challenge. I play a lot of hard games (often not by choice) and enjoy most of them, but there’s always a point where I inevitably get annoyed and feel ready to give up. Darkest Dungeon, even during its most brutal moments, never pushed me to the brink. I spent countless hours trying to recover from utterly crushing loses, slowly rebuilding my team again and again only to fail once more and repeat the process anew. Usually I’d have quit after the first few instances. But Darkest Dungeon kept me going. Because every time I failed, I knew exactly why.
It was because I pushed my team too far when I should have retreated. It was because I didn’t properly prepare because I was trying to save money. It was because I sent someone who was already on the brink out again instead of letting them rest (though in my defense, I had no choice because the game forced me to). It was always a mix of hubris and unfortunate circumstances that led me to make those decisions, and every time I paid the price. It’s not like other games that are largely dictated by dice rolls (say, XCOM) where it feels like failure comes at the expense of an unlucky roll than something you actively could have avoided.
That Darkest Dungeon didn’t fall victim to those pitfalls is what allowed me to keep playing even when things were at their bleakest. When it seemed like I had no chance of prevailing, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I prepared, I always knew that wasn’t the case. There was always some way forward. I just had to find it.
Best moment: Finishing the penultimate dungeon against all odds with only one unit left standing.
I love local multiplayer games. There’s nothing quite like getting a group of people together in the same room to play something. That also means I don’t get many chances to enjoy them because of how difficult it is to get people together.
Overcooked sort of remedied that problem through one simple, albeit unwieldy solution: allowing players to share controllers. The biggest issue preventing my family and I from playing a whole lot of local multiplayer games together (apart from time) is the lack of controllers. Most of them are made with four players in mind, the games becoming a far lesser experience with anything less. Overcooked kinda suffers from the same problem (the chaos makes things so much better), but it has a handy solution built right in.
Overcooked sees you and up to three other players running a kitchen under increasingly absurd circumstances and locales. How about a kitchen atop of slab of ice, or one spread between a bunch of moving trucks? Trying to organize a team of four amid these conditions is where most of the fun of Overcooked comes from. It’s absolute chaos from the word “go,” as everyone begins scrambling to try to fill orders as fast as possible, everyone yelling out what they need all the while. It quickly devolves into utter bedlam, yet somehow manages to remain coherent enough that the job somehow gets done.
I haven’t played as much of this as I’d like, but what little I’ve been able to play has been nothing short of spectacular. There’s been plenty of fantastic local multiplayer games this year, but Overcooked is by far my favorite this year.
Best moment: The first time everything clicked and we were filling orders left and right… only for the game to suddenly throw a wrench into our operation and ruin everything.
7. Titanfall 2
Titanfall 2 could have made this list purely on virtue of being more Titanfall. But it’s the incredible and surprising single-player campaign that makes the game noteworthy. Where the previous game threw a radio drama on top of standard multiplayer matches, Titanfall 2 takes the more traditional route. I expected a by-the-numbers corridor shooter, but instead, it delivered one of the most varied, inventive campaigns in years.
Every level offers up something new. One moment you’re running and jumping across plots of land and slabs of metal on an assembly line that eventually lock together into a house, the next you’re jumping back and forth through time fighting battles on multiple fronts. While early goings are maybe a touch slow, the remainder of the game is nothing short of impressive, always introducing new ideas before discarding them in favor of something else. It’s a game that’s unafraid to true out new ideas, explore them in full, then toss ‘em aside before they grow stale. Given how big-budget games remain such safe, conservative endeavors these days, Titanfall 2’s willingness to constantly switch things up is a welcome surprise.
Best moment: “Press L1 to Time Travel.”
6. Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3 is by far the most refined Souls game. It takes the best bits from its predecessors and combines it all into a single game spectacularly. Faster combat refreshes the series’ trademark focus on defense by forcing you to be agile instead of sitting behind your shield and tanking hits all day, resulting in more thrilling encounters. It treads a lot of familiar ground – both literally and figuratively – but as the fifth one of these games From Software’s put out since 2009, that’s to be expected.
More to the point, though, it feels intentional. As this is essentially the end of Dark Souls, its highly referential nature feels like less a result of a lack of ideas and more its way of saying goodbye. Revisiting old haunts and reliving familiar concepts elicits a strange sort of nostalgia. For as much as I despised trudging through the series’ many poison swamps, as tired as I am of traversing catacombs rife with reanimated skeletons, seeing those ideas play out once more in Dark Souls 3 made me feel at home. Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing these games for years and have become so familiar with their tricks that they don’t phase me anymore. Or maybe I’m just feeling sentimental.
Regardless, I’m glad From Software got to end the series on their own terms. They could have easily kept pumping them out year after year – and I’d keep playing them – but they knew when to stop.
Best moment: The Abyss Watchers fight. The very embodiment of everything Dark Souls is.
In OneShot, you guide a kid with cat-like features named Niko on a journey to save a dying world. The twist is that you’re the god of this world – everyone knows your name (like, literally; they refer to you by your actual name) despite never prompting you to type it in. But that’s only a tiny part of what makes OneShot interesting.
You’re frequently asked to look outside the game for the answers to puzzles. A code for a safe lies hidden in a document on your hard drive, a pattern for a floor puzzle displayed on the most obvious spot of your screen. Without getting too specific, the game makes a very strong case for why it says it’s best played in windowed mode. But even that is only a small part of what makes OneShot great.
It’s tough to explain what precisely makes it so good because to do would require me to spoil basically everything. To put it simply, OneShot has a ton of heart. The connection you forge with Niko feels more personal because they speak to you directly, and you to them. It’s not so much a story about you or Niko – it’s one you share together. You’re both outsiders to this world, you both discover it together, and you both ultimately decide its fate together. In most videogames, the connection between player and player-character is more detached. The player-characters are the one’s experiencing everything and you’re just along for the ride, silently guiding them. In OneShot, you’re both in this together every step of the way.
Best moment: The final puzzle.
4. Hyper Light Drifter
I could talk plenty about how Hyper Light Drifter’s stylish art, its smooth combat, and its fascinating world all make it such a phenomenal game. It’s one of the most tightly-designed, well-executed action games around, its world a place I would love to learn more about. But the one thing that stuck out to me, even back when it was just a simple Kickstarter campaign seeking funds, was the music.
Disasterpiece’s beautiful score injects every second of Hyper Light Drifter with magic. It’s often never more than a whisper; you can tell it’s there doing its job, but you never notice just how effective it is in the heat of the moment. It’s not bombastic, it rarely ever matches the intense pace of battle, but it always works. Its quiet nature suits the game splendidly, subtly conveying the beauty of the ruins, forests, and abandoned facilities you hack-‘n-slash and shoot your way through. It’s a world that looks like it’s been through some truly tough times, and the score captures that sense flawlessly. I almost wish the game was focuses less on combat and more on pure exploration, because the history its world implies is so fascinating.
Best moment: Discovering your first secret.
In a year as hectic and depressing as this one, a game as relaxing as Abzu is the perfect escape. Its wondrous underwater world is a delight to explore and play in. Every time I played it, both prior to and after release, I was always struck by how soothing it is to play. Even on the loud, busy E3 show floor, a time where I’m always at my most tired and anxious, I was immediately overcome by a deep sense of calm. No matter what my mental state was, playing Abzu for any amount of time immediately lulled me into a state of serenity.
That’s because, as I said in my review: “Abzu wants you to take it slow; to kick back and explore, enjoy the sights, play with the wildlife, maybe sit and meditate for a while. […] Where most games focus on pressing onward, urging you to continue moving forward through objective markers or quips from your companions, Abzu focuses on taking it easy and living in the moment.”
It’s a game that encourages you to take everything in, to forget about whatever you’re doing and relax for a bit. Austin Wintory’s enchanting score is much to thank for that, his music once again delivering immeasurable aural beauty to match the equally gorgeous world. If Abzu is just a taste of what Giant Squid can do, I can’t wait to see what they make next.
Best moment: Watching each area come back to life before your eyes. Just breathtaking.
Anatomy is easily the most terrifying game I’ve ever played. Granted, I don’t play a whole lot of horror games, so that qualification probably carries little weight, but still. Anatomy unnerved me in ways most horror fiction hasn’t. It takes the one place of safety and refuge we have – our homes – and transforms it into something to be feared.
It takes the idea of a haunted house and twists it into something far more disturbing. A house that isn’t inhabited by ghosts or monsters, a house that isn’t a portal to some nightmare realm, but something far more frightening. It is a house that breaks its unspoken promise to protect you. It is a house with a voice – it speaks through the tapes you find scattered throughout its rooms. It is a house that is lonely and forgotten – angry at the people who it once held. It is a house that is hungry; a house with teeth. And you are its prey.
Best moment: Realizing the game wasn’t over when it closed itself for the first time.
It’s rare that playing a game leaves me physically exhausted. After every session with Thumper, I felt like I had run a marathon. All I did was sit in my chair and press a button on my controller, but the audiovisual assault of Thumper is able to transform such a seemingly simple, innocuous act into something very taxing and intense.
Thumper calls itself a “rhythm violence” game, a term that only makes sense once you’ve experienced Thumper first-hand. The things that make it intense don’t come across when you’re merely watching. As a simple observer, Thumper looks like any other stylish rhythm game. As the one playing, it’s an absorbing, transcendent experience.
From the moment the percussion first kicks in, Thumper consumed me. Everything around me faded, my mind focused only on the road in front of me. I started to feel every impact reverberate through me, both from the beetle slamming into walls and the hard beats of the music. Anytime someone tried to get my attention, it felt like being broken out of a trance. So tight was its grip on me that I unconsciously tuned out all outside noise and ignored whatever lie in my periphery. I’ve played plenty of games that require a ton of focus, but never one that goes to the degree Thumper does. It’s simultaneously amazing and terrifying.
In some ways, Thumper feels like a perfect analog to 2016 and beyond. This whole year has felt like a headlong plunge into the abyss, the horrors that lie within staring back the whole time, threatening to overtake us. And the only way we’re gonna get through it, the only way we’ll see the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel is to push through. I don’t know what 2017 will bring, but whatever it throws at us, we need to be ready to face it head on.
Best moment: Finally taking down the horrible Lovecraftian monster you’ve fought throughout the game only to encounter the true final boss.
Honorable mentions: Bound, Videoball, Firewatch, Diviner, Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4, Superhot, No Man’s Sky, Oxenfree, Dairies of a Spaceport Janitor, Small Radios Big Televisions, The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, and Sacramento.
Games I didn’t play but wish I had: That Dragon, Cancer, Quadrilateral Cowboy, The Last Guardian, Mafia 3, beads of orange glass, The Catacombs of Solaris, Lieve Oma, Soft Body, Wheels of Aurelia, Virginia, and Event.