This is not a list of the best games of the year. In fact, I did not play nearly enough games that came out this year to even attempt such a list. Rather, it is a list of the games that I played in 2016 that most touched my heart and mind, that remained in my waking and dreaming thoughts, and that I would without hesitation recommend. Here are the games, presented in alphabetical order.
Available on PC, Mac, and Linux.
Cibele will take you about an hour to complete, but it manages to say and do so much more with its runtime than games that are fifty times as long. It tells the fictionalized, but true, story of developer/writer Nina Freeman’s romance with a stranger, whom she met playing Final Fantasy Online. The game exists primarily in her headspace, allowing us to play the online game and browse social media through her eyes. On the surface, it is a straightforward story about sex and love in the internet age, but more deeply it is an examination of how media creates, distorts, and helps realize the self. We live with – the fictional, mind you – Nina for a time, seeing a seemingly unfiltered show of images and moments. In this, it aches with a need to communicate all the mess of human life. It forces us to ask who we are and what makes us who we are. It would be easy to dismiss a game like this: It’s short. It lacks any traditional feature set. It is often awkward and messy. But in all of this is a beauty and a truth expressed unlike anything else.
Available on PC, Mac, and Linux.
Proof that less is more, Devil Daggers manages to create a deep shooter that also expertly examines its own genre. It does this by paring down the game to its simplest elements. The low-fi art direction and sound design feed a game that is by nature horrifying, even as it thrills. No part is wasted; the result is focused brilliance.
Read more of my writing about Devil Daggers here.
Hyper Light Drifter
Available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux.
It would be tempting to dismiss this game as another product of the Kickstarter nostalgia machine. One could label it as a simple repacking of different cool things you liked in other games put together into a shiny new tin. But to do so would be to rob the game of its astonishing emotional and narrative complexity. The game borrows the structure of the Legend of Zelda, the tense combative exchange and storytelling style of Dark Souls, and the beauty of Studio Ghibli films to create something that feels as once familiar and totally new. The story beats are vague, primarily told in images, music, sound, and the world itself, but these subtle hints build up a powerful story of defiance in the face of unknown horror. Gorgeous, sad, thrilling, and contemplative all at once, Hyper Light Drifter earns and exceeds its legacy.
Tales from the Borderlands
Available on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, and Mobile Devices
Just about perfect. Each episode is a delight all its own with smart pacing and a constant barrage of memorable, character driven moments. The game builds a surprisingly nuanced examination of the previous games’ violence, but never lets its metafiction become distracting. Rather it creates a cast of characters that feel wonderfully real, grounds those characters in humor and emotion, and lets them shine.
Read more of my writing about Tales from the Borderlands here.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Available on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC
The best American big budget game I’ve played in a long time, The New Order succeeds with a keen self-awareness, a respect for its legacy combined with a need to push it forward, and sharp and elegant writing. It consistently succeeds where its counterparts fail, justifiably contextualizing its violence, emphasizing player decision making, and giving all its characters, not just its male ones, a warmth and life. It’s also a damn fine shooter that gives its spaces a gravitas that enables thrilling fire fights and emotive exploration. Silly action doesn’t get better than this.
Read more of my writing about Wolfenstein: The New Order here.
The Beginner’s Guide: A meta-game that ends up being more broken and human than smug and smart.
Duet: Minimalist, beautiful, and unique platforming.
The Last of Us: Flawed and split in design philosophy, but sad and beautiful in a rare way for big budget games .
Octodad: Dadliest Catch: The most human game I’ve ever played about being an Octopus.
Overwatch: Fun in diverse ways. More immediately likable than just about anything I’ve ever played.
Saint’s Row: The Third: Silly and fun, does exactly what it needs to do.
Volume: Smart, mechanically varied, stealth puzzles.