My 2016 was a year of surprises. There were so many games I didn’t expect would capture me the way they did, featuring genres and mechanics I usually don’t like but that nevertheless thrilled me. I tried a lot of new kinds of games this year, and I found a lot of new favorites. Here’s my top 10.
This piece originally appeared 12/26/16.
That Dragon, Cancer
That Dragon, Cancer was an ambitious look at topics games don’t usually address, a series of simple vignettes that were each somehow bigger than they seemed. In particular it explored faith in a brave way unique to games. It examined what it means to be a person of faith honestly, unapologetically, and complexly. It’s a story that stuck with me long after I’d finished the game, and I hope it opens the door for more games to explore religion in new ways.
American Truck Simulator
I love trucking simulators, which is weird for someone who hasn’t driven in over a decade. While Euro Trucks will always be my favorite, American Truck Simulator brought its weirdly compulsive and soothing journey to an environment that was at once familiar and new. I’ll never get tired of turning on the radio and whiling away a few hours moving fake cargo from place to place. I’m excited for ATS’ land mass to expand, hopefully one day allowing me to live my dream of driving past my own house.
Hyper Light Drifter
I tend not to be a fan of hard games. I lack the time and patience to really dig into them. But Hyper Light Drifter’s bright, mysterious world and simple but tough-as-nails mechanics drew me in. I felt like a bad-ass after each boss fight I completed, and I saw the game’s trickier areas when I closed my eyes at night. It gave me a new appreciation for difficult games, and even if I’ll never fully best it, I enjoyed my time with it immensely.
I’m not big into rhythm games, but I couldn’t stop playing Thumper. It unfolded so carefully that I didn’t realize hours passed with me staring intensely at it, tapping my feet, bobbing my head, and trying over and over to get a perfect score. Thumper’s simple mechanics are wrapped in a harsh, brutal vibe that feels like a good punk show. It’s another one I’ll probably never beat, but that won’t stop me from trying.
Gonner might be my new Spelunky (if I needed a new Spelunky, which I don’t, because Spelunky is perfect). Its quirky art style and chunky feedback are charming, and its procedural levels means there’s always a reason to try one more time. It’s one of my regular go-to games when I need something quick to play between tasks, plus you get to hug a whale.
I’ve been playing Darkest Dungeon since it arrived in Early Access. It features the stats and leveling that tend to turn me off RPGs, but its strong art style and Lovecraftian setting were enough to keep me going. While the quirks mechanic wasn’t as robust as I would have liked, it was nevertheless a fun twist that asked me to balance a thrilling number of things in each encounter. Losing characters I’d poured hours into never stopped stinging, but each setback felt fair, brutal, and exciting.
My colleagues’ love for Inside was what initially inspired me to give it a shot. It’s a simple game with mysteries that don’t unfold so much as come crashing inexplicably through the wall. The end made my jaw drop and reduced me to awed laughter. I’ve showed it to countless friends, especially those who don’t play games, and everyone has been charmed by its bleak weirdness.
My favorite thing about Dishonored 2 is that it’s more Dishonored. Dishonored remains one of my favorite games somewhat in spite of itself; its unique mechanics and creative levels outshine its flat plot. Dishonored 2 doesn’t feel like a reinvention so much as more of what makes its predecessor great. I loved returning to the series’ evocative, beautiful world, exploring levels that feel like real places, uncovering its secrets and alternate paths, and playing with its possibilities. I haven’t played nearly enough time as Emily yet, and once mission select is implemented I’m excited to explore each level top to bottom and invent needlessly complicated ways to assassinate my targets.
By all accounts I should have hated Overwatch. I don’t tend to like multiplayer games, especially playing multiplayer shooters with strangers. But I caught the enthusiasm everyone had for Overwatch, and now I don’t think a day’s gone by that I haven’t popped in for a quick round or two. It has the same short match time that makes Rocket League so great, and the new brawls and arcade modes are endless sources of hilarity. The diversity of characters and roles means there’s always a way I can feel like I’m helping the team (I’m one of those rare people who almost always plays healer), but there’s still impetus to experiment with new classes and heroes.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of 2016's Hitman. Previously I’d played a few uninspiring hours of Absolution and struggled through the age of the early parts of Blood Money. Hitman became a game I loved more the more time I spent with it. Its episodic release structure meant a steady flow of new content in the form of escalations, contracts, and elusive targets that made it feel less like a game and more like a world (a pretty grim, murderous world, but still). The wait between episodes inspired me to explore each level thoroughly and try new things. Over the course of the year, Hitman revealed its secrets and blossomed into a funny, imaginative playground I can’t get enough of. Plus Agent 47 looks good in literally every pair of pants, and you can’t ask for much more than that.