“Pa,” said the girl, “famine took everything from us, and disease the rest. Also the other day a pack of wolves plain stole old man Edwards, and they didn’t even ‘splain what they was plannin’ to use him fer.” The father studied his daughter, gaunt but strong, face hollowed by months of uncertainty. “The video games, though,” he replied. “The video games were good this year.”
(Note: I’m not arranging these in any particular order, because rankings are silly.)
OK, I lied a bit about the rankings thing. Overwatch is my personal game of the year. I was trying to keep it a secret, but I worry I might have given myself away by writing about it every dang day and running a semi-regular video show where Cecilia, Heather, and I yell at each other about whether or not Junkrat is bad. Overwatch is the rambunctious child that was born after a team shooter, a MOBA, and a sentient box of Crayolas got frisky during a boozy evening on the town.
Plenty of games can bill themselves as having Something For Everyone, but few do it in a way that speaks to so many different people on an individual level. This type of fanatical devotion from legions of people isn’t a fluke. Whether they love the way lobbing rockets from the glorious heavens as Pharah feels (hi that is me) or they’ve spent more time on elaborate Pharah x Mercy fan-fiction than they have actually playing the game (no comment on whether or not that is also me), the game has so much to offer. You don’t even need to be good at first-person shooters to enjoy it.
It was also super bold of Blizzard to make a game with 23 gay characters. Can’t wait for the brawl that’s just everybody hugging and smooching on an idyllic summer afternoon. Well, assuming they ever GET ON THE DAMN PAYLOAD, that is.
XCOM 2 was kinda the perfect game to kick off the year 2016, if you think about it. Its early hours, especially, can be measured in the pools of nervous sweat that form beneath your mouse. You’re always plunging into the unknown, and things keep getting worse. New enemies appear, seemingly from nowhere, when you thought you already had your hands full. You keep losing precious people, many of whom look just like your favorite musicians and celebrities. It doesn’t feel fair.
But you keep moving. You don’t have a choice. Unlike the first XCOM reboot, XCOM 2 is a game about charging forward rather than hunkering down. Slowly but surely, you learn the art of ambush and surprise. You realize that you’re stronger and smarter than you knew. You find new depths within yourself, and you rise to the occasion.
Reigns offers what is easily my favorite game interface of the year. Basically, it’s Tinder, except you rule a whole damn kingdom with it. You swipe right or left on decisions, and then you clasp your swiping hands together and pray they aren’t your last. For about a month, it was my go-to “waiting for the bus/train/plane” game. It’s a perfect mobile experience, where you can get a full, rewarding story arc in a matter of minutes. On one playthrough, you might close your borders and get killed by a chatty skeleton in your own dungeon. On the next, you might follow your dog into the forest and eat a weird mushroom. On the one after that, you might meet the devil.
Reigns is a game that’s witty as it is charming, but it also contains hidden depths. Playthroughs build on themselves as you try to break a cycle of pseudo-reincarnation that sees you die hundreds of grisly deaths. What does it all mean? Who is the ghost? Does the fortune teller really have any effect on your actions? Keep trying, keep dying, and eventually, you might just put all the pieces together.
Of course there’s a Witcher game on my list. Next year, I’ll probably just start making up new ones (I’m not much of a Gwent player, sadly), but for now I promise this one’s real. Blood And Wine is a phenomenal expansion to an already expansive game. It’s a send-off that exudes love for the series’ characters and world while mixing a healthy number of new ideas into the formula. It’s also a bit cheerier than typical Witcher fare, albeit with no shortage of gruesome ends met by wannabe heroes dancing around in Geralt’s long shadow.
More than anything, though, Blood And Wine marks an end to an adventure I’ve been on for years. It’s a final hurrah for Geralt, one about coming to terms with the totality of his legacy, for good and for ill. It’s an example of a game bowing out at just the right time, too. As I said in my review:
“Toussaint in all its colorful silliness might seem like an odd place to end Geralt’s grim tale, but looking back on it all, I think I get it. He’s a lone hunter, an outcast who drifts in and out of people’s lives. He’s spent the past year drifting in and out of mine, there when I need him, forgotten when something new and shiny comes out. You’d think that the only real end awaiting him would be a lonely one—fearful people ganging up on him, a fatal mistake in battle, or a monster that’s a bit too fast or powerful—and maybe it still is. But after all the time we’ve spent coming to know and love this guy, why end on that?”
OneShot is a game that it’s difficult to say much about without spoiling, but here’s the basic idea: the main character, who you control, is aware of your existence. So are other entities in the game world. I’m still not 100 percent sure how they know my real name.
You’re god to main character Niko’s messiah, and things quickly get rough. Niko is just a kid, and a lot is being asked of them. You’re their guardian as well as their guide, but unlike most gods, you’re only human. Few games have made me feel such a strong connection to the little blob of pixels I’m pushing through hoops on screen. Few have made me feel so terrible for causing them pain. Ultimately, though, there’s a ray of hope that suffuses through OneShot’s crystalline loneliness. It’s a beautiful game.
I kept going back and forth on whether or not to include Mafia III on my list. In many ways, it’s downright archaic as far as open-world games go. The story it tries to tell, though, is bold and beautifully presented. Its beats don’t always land, but the plot hits more often than it misses. And yes, racism is a large part of that. Mafia III is unapologetic in its depictions of racism, both systemically and narratively. It tells the story of a mostly black cast doing their damndest in a society that would rather write them off. The decisions they make are not always pretty or good, but Mafia III tries to explore that rather than sweep it under the rug. Well, most of the time, anyway.
I also enjoyed the act of playing it more than most people, I think. The comparison I keep going back to is the 2015 Mad Max game. In both games, you repeat the same basic mission frameworks over and over and over (against some dumb-as-rocks AI, in Mafia III’s case), but there’s a comfortable sort of rhythm to it. I’ve spent tens of hours stalking through Mafia III’s fantastically realized world and Giving Dudes The Business, and every once in a while I get an itch to go back and do it more.
After nearly a decade in development, Owlboy somehow managed to be worth the wait. It’s not what I’d call a revelatory experience, but it’s an adventure that’s full-to-bursting with heart. Its puzzle unfold with refreshing briskness. There’s a constant sense of forward motion, and mechanics build on themselves with a grace that sometimes borders on classic Nintendo. The story also goes to some Extremely Real places, grounding what could otherwise be a happy-go-lucky romp in pathos of rejection and overcoming disability. That graveyard scene, man. That graveyard scene.
Reading through my Darkest Dungeon review again is weird for me. It’s been a long damn year, and already, it feels like a kind of time capsule. In my review, I wrote about my struggle to accept that progress isn’t always permanent, and that there really is no shame in asking for help. I would say that 2016 hammered home the former idea for many people.
As for the latter, I wish I could say I made a quick turnaround after Darkest Dungeon beat some sense into me. I wish I could say I became more willing to step away or reach out instead of beating my head against the wall. Of all years, this would’ve been a very good time to do it. By and large, though, I haven’t. I’m still stubborn and selfish, and I’ve spent the past 365 days alienating a lot of very good people. I still feel like Darkest Dungeon helped open my eyes to some very important lessons, but well, progress isn’t permanent, nor is it linear. Maybe it’s time for a replay.
Dishonored 2 is my favorite game of the year that’s not Overwatch. It’s pretty much everything I want out of a single-player experience: levels crafted so lovingly that they shine whether you’re on playthrough one or playthrough 20, powers that fit together like clockwork, and a quietly fascinating series of mini-stories scattered across the world. It’s that rare sort of game where I’m tempted to save and reload nearly every encounter because I can’t stop having ideas about how to sneak, stab, or sprint my way past it. I pull up this video of somebody killing the same Dishonored 2 villain 80 different ways on a regular basis. Dishonored 2 is a game so rich with care and craft that it astounds me.
Also, I really, really like posing unconscious bodies so that it looks like they just got done having sick-ass parties. I don’t want the ten or so hours I’ve spent doing it back, because I have no regrets, and I am not sorry.
Am I joking? Am I serious? I’m not even sure if I know at this point.