By any account, 2016 has been a wonderful year for games, and the lists my colleagues shared over the past few weeks certainly affirmed that. How they managed to narrow their lists down to just five top games is beyond me. Just cutting it down to the top 16 of ‘16 was a rough task (the fact that I didn’t just do an even 20 goes to show my commitment to stupid wordplay).
In my thoughts on the “top” games of 2016, I couldn’t help but wonder what makes a “top” game. Is it the best game, and if so, by what measure? Is it the game you enjoyed the most? The game you spent the most time with? “The games I liked the most” is vague and subjective. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but I think it’s useful to pin down what exactly a “top game” is, at least from my perspective.
For me, a top game is one that isn’t just fun or entertaining, but is noteworthy in some way. It’s a game that pushes boundaries, challenges expectations, and has some sort of impact – on the medium, on society, on the audience, or on all of the above. A top game is a game that won’t be forgotten as soon as the next big thing comes along, but a game that we’ll be talking about five, ten, even twenty years from now. For me, the top games are the ones that make a difference – the ones that are the most important in some way or another.
Thus, in a deliberately randomised order (praise be to RNGesus), I give you my Top 16 Games of ‘16.
“Truly, Unravel is a special game.” That’s what I said when I reviewed Unravel way back in February, and it’s a sentiment that still rings true. This is a game that’s light on overt plot, but instead focuses on deep emotional storytelling – environmental design, music, mechanics, and animations all come together to tell a heartwarming tale about family, love, and loss.
It’s a welcome first step in EA’s newfound embracing of smaller, more niche games. More importantly, it’s one of the finest examples of the power of minimalist storytelling, and the kind of magic that can be made when the different aspects of game design come together as a cohesive whole.
There’s been a lot of attention given to Firewatch, and rightly so. It’s a remarkable game that proves the capacity of the medium to tell intimate, interpersonal drama stories. Games have an obsession with putting protagonists up against external threats that can be overcome, and even the games that do a great job of telling personal stories almost always do so within the context of something decidedly “gamey”.
Firewatch pointedly subverts that trend. It has a setup that screams mystery thriller, but it instead tells a moving, tragic story that – importantly – is grounded entirely in reality. I don’t want to give too much away, but the way it plays off expectations of the video game medium is utter brilliance. Fantastic performances from Cissy Jones and Rich Sommer certainly help, too.
I know plenty of people were surprised at with how good Final Fantasy XV turned out, after such a troubled development. What really blew me away, though, is just just how successful it is at taking the Final Fantasy series in a new direction, while still retaining that core “Final Fantasy-ness”.
In a lot of ways, Final Fantasy XV is unlike any other game in the series: it’s an open-world action RPG set in a world that’s much more grounded in reality. It’s a coming-of-age story that’s as inspired by classic American films like Stand By Me as it is by its JRPG forebears. Yet it still has all the heart, silliness, and melodrama – delivered to near perfection – of an old timey Final Fantasy game, not to mention its myriad of Easter eggs. If you want to reinvigorate a franchise, this is how you do it.
One of the wonderful side effects of the ongoing indie boom has been the growing presence of games from developing nations. Among the most momentous of these is Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, the first commercial game from Cameroon. The folks at Kiro’o spent the past decade working on Aurion, and despite month-long power outages and a relative lack of reliable communications infrastructure, they managed to develop and release a great game.
Aurion draws a lot of inspiration from the likes of Tales of Destiny, Guilty Gear, and Dragon Ball Z, but it’s also unapologetically African. Everything, from the setting – a fantasy world based on a vision of an Africa that was never colonised – to the outfits and weapons characters’ use are based on different African cultures. It got enough attention that rights to an Aurion film were purchased, so here’s hoping we’ll be seeing plenty more out of Kiro’o in the year’s to come.
This game could have easily been a disaster – a shallow attempt to cash in on the popularity of Minecraft. Instead, it’s a brilliant fusion of different ideas that come together to form something that’s much more than the sum of its parts.
On paper, it’s Minecraft with Dragon Quest elements. In practice, that means it’s a block-builder with robust RPG elements and a captivating story, giving it a sense of structure and progression that these games often lack (not to mention ridiculously cute monsters). Dragon Quest Builders proves that when well designed, placing constraints on a sandbox can actually encourage design, rather than hindering it. No other game has pushed the block-building genre forward like Dragon Quest Builders.
Gal*Gun: Double Peace is a first-person rail shooter that trades bullets for “pheromone shots” and zombies/soldiers/what-have-you for horny girls. It’s also one of the smartest games released all year, and I am being 100 percent serious when I say that.
For one thing, it’s a great example of how well-established mechanics can be repurposed with a bit of creativity. Shooters are violent by definition, but Gal*Gun turns that on its head. In the process, it puts a spotlight on the odd double standard that society has in its treatment of violence and sex in games.
It’s also a brilliant satire of “pervy anime games” and sexualisation. It’s an unashamedly lewd and suggestive game, but it’s very self-aware and takes every opportunity to chastise its target audience. Moreover, it’s designed in such a way that if you want to do well, you have to look past that sexualisation and see the girls in the game as people. There are some 80 different girls in the game, and getting good scores requires knowing them as individuals – not just where they’re most sensitive to pheromone shots, but their likes, dislikes, hobbies, and so on.
One of the most significant works of video game art is a game about tapping a jar of mayonnaise until the lid comes off. It’s a game that costs a dollar, can be “finished” in half an hour, and consists entirely of pressing a single button repeatedly.
In this, it offers up a scathing (and hilarious) satire of the videogame medium as a whole, and the AAA industry in particular. It puts a spotlight on the the fundamental absurdity of games: they’re abstract collections of mathematical equations and meaningless button presses. Even the most serious games are still grounded in that “gaminess,” and that lack of self-awareness is firmly in My Name is Mayo’s crosshairs.
It also takes aim at our obsession with trophies and high scores, with a pointless leaderboard that some folks have nonetheless committed hundreds of hours to. It lampoons common game plots with a few different stories that play out in trophy descriptions and an assortment of different costumes that you unlock for your mayo jar. In short, it’s a brilliant piece of videogame anti-art, and that’s something this medium desperately needs.
There’s been a bit of a surge in “quiet games” – games that aren’t about overcoming challenges or even about doing anything, specifically. Instead, they just let you exist in a place, with minimal interactivity, as you let the world wash over you. They’re introspective, meditative experiences that offer some welcome respite from the rush of life.
ABZU is one of the best examples of this sort of game. Its stylised, dreamlike vision of the deep sea is a wonder to get lost in, and grabbing hold of a whale’s fin and just cruising the waterscape is among the most serene experiences I’ve ever had in a game. In a medium so obsessed with giving players stuff to do, ABZU makes a point of doing nothing at all, and that’s a beautiful thing.
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