2016 is the first year that I have kept something resembling a journal. Back in August, my girlfriend got me a planner for my birthday, and I have written in it almost every day since. It is a calming experience, and has allowed me to take a moment to breathe and remember not only what I must do in the future, but what I have already accomplished.
It is surprising then that I spent very little time documenting my gaming life in that planner. Gaming, as anyone reading this blog might assume, is my most abiding passion, yet I take very little time to think about my gaming time as it relates to my life. I analyze the games I play. I discuss and write about the experience and the design of games, but I do not spend a lot of time considering how it is that games fit into my daily schedule. I sometimes like to pretend that gaming is separate from “real life”. I pretend that the time I spend gaming is somehow less worthy than the time spent out in the world. But it isn’t. It is exactly as worthy as those other times. Looking back through my planner, I have little to no record of what I played this year, what I thought about it, or how these games have factored into my life.
So this year seems as good as any to create my first Game of the Year list. It can be an accounting of what I played, why I played it, and why it meant something to me. Plus, The experience of thinking back on all the games I played this year was cathartic and enlightening. For one, I remembered a lot of games that I played this year that I had all but forgotten about. For two, I got to reconsider each game and think about what it was that made that game interesting to me. What was it that made these games work so well for me when I played them. What did the game do to make me like it so much, and what about the external experience helped it along. I found that a number of games this year stuck out to me so much because of the situations in which I played them.
Stellaris is a 4X game, which means I was EXtremely (haha) unlikely to enjoy it as much as I did. This is the first of many games on this list that surprised me in 2016. 4X is a genre of grand strategy game that involves allows players to create empires, and conquer the world through science, military might, or some other form of discovery. Usually, I find these games too impersonal to enjoy. I don’t have a place to sink my emotional anchor. The king of 4X games, the Civilization series, always felt too abstract to me. Playing as an immortal Gandhi negotiating with immortal Genghis Khan felt impersonal. These are not characters, they are avatars for a nation. What Stellaris does differently is offer a narrative to go along with its grand strategy. Not that it has a pre-written story Instead, as you play through the game, it does a fantastic job of developing a unique story for your alien empire. At the beginning of the game, players create a species both biologically and politically. Then, they take this species through their conquest of the stars. Throughout the experience, new leaders will rise and fall, time will pass, and events and characters will rise from the ranks of the randomly generated denizens of the player’s alien empire.
To help me create these narratives, I also brought in a ringer: a good friend from high school. We sat and played Stellaris for hours earlier this year. He was leaving town for grad school, and the two of us had always played games together. Sometimes cooperatively, sometimes competitively, or sometimes we would play two different games in the same room. Stelllaris is the perfect game for that over the shoulder play, with both of us making decisions about the direction that our peaceful space mushroomms would take in their quest to conquer the galaxy through negotiation and friendship. Stellaris found its place on this list because it gave me a reason to look at 4X games, and gave me a chance to hang out with a good friend and tell wonderful stories.
I played the browser-based demo of SUPERHOT all those years ago (I think it was like, 2) and wished for more immediately. Recently, I got my wish. The full SUPERHOT experience is simply fantastic. In SUPERHOT, time only moves when you move, making for a stylish bullet time experience. The only reason this game is not higher on my list is that I haven’t finished it yet. This is the flip side of seeing how games relate to my life: sometimes events in my life make my gaming experiences better, and other times my life gets in the way of my full enjoyment of a game. I love SUPERHOT, but other games and a busy schedule have kept me from tearing all the way through it. What I have gone through so far has excited me.
8) Darkest Dungeon
Darkest Dungeon is a game that I spent a decent amount of time with before 2016. The strange pattern of modern game releases means that some games are functionally out long before they are technically out, and I spent a lot of time with this game in Early Access. Darkest Dungeon is a disaster factory. As you lead your band of merry adventurers into the various randomly generated dungeons on offer, they will proceed to get less and less merry. Exposed to various horrors both Gothic and eldritch, your characters will pick up maladies that hinder their ability to function. Normally, I don’t like these kinds of games. Getting screwed over always makes me feel like I need to restart the game to try and get a better run. Darkest Dungeon is so cruel that all notions of having a clean run go out the window. Characters will go insane, they will turn on each other, and they will die. Once I accepted that, I began to have a great time with Darkest Dungeon, and despite its cruelty, the game feels fair. I can mitigate the horrible circumstances that befall my characters using good tactics, and the party building and moment to moment combat feel so satisfying and deep. I have a run going now where I name every character after friends of mine, and picking up this game for an hour or so every couple of days has been a great way to experience its horrible, horrible journey.
I thought I would hate Overwatch. Its MOBA trappings, and its competitive nature worried me at first. I am not a big fan of MOBAs, and I don’t usually find the time to put into competitive games, but Overwatch played with both of those ideas in a way that allowed me to dive into the experience. For one, aside from the skills that each character has, the game bears no resemblance to a MOBA. As far as the competitive side goes, Overwatch made me feel competitive without feeling like I sucked. The characters played differently enough that I could find a niche to fill in any game, and I enjoyed it enough to get good at it. Combine that with forgiving hit boxes and a community that genuinely seemed to be there for a good time, and Overwatch successfully dragged me into the competitive shooter scene for a time. It also helped me to make my first friends online. I played a lot of Overwatch with a friend of mine that I game with regularly, and he introduced me to a whole crew of people that played Overwatch practically every night. It fell by the wayside when other games I wanted to play more came out, but it has a special place in my heart.
What is there to say about DOOM that has not already been said? It is just a fantastic shooter from top to bottom. It modernizes a classic without losing the soul of the original experience, and provides one of the most exciting shooter campaigns I have ever experienced. Also goddamn. A shooter with good shotguns in it. Oh man. I could not be happier with that.
5) Tilt Brush
Virtual Reality may not be “here” quite yet, but I am having a blast with it. When the VR headsets first hit the markets earlier this year, I was excited to see what they could offer and to see where the technology would go, but I had no interest in picking up a headset for myself. As the year wore on and I saw more and more VR experiences come out, I became increasingly excited about the platform, and after seeing some footage of Tilt Brush, an idea started to form. I called my dad, and we decided to go in halfsies on a Vive, and set it up somewhere we could both play with it. Day one of using the headset, and I had the same experience that everyone has seemed to have with VR: I was giddy, and excited about doing even the most simple tasks. That excited me, but what really got me about the potential of the system, was watching my dad play with it. A few years ago, I convinced him to play Journey as a birthday present to me. We spent almost three hours working through the game, and he loved the experience. The controls hindered him though. Controlling a character in 3D space is hard for a person who has never played a video game. VR solved that problem. Within minutes he was through the tutorial and painting in Tilt Brush. I have never seen a gaming experience so thoroughly enrapture a non-gamer. Not the Wii, not the rise of cell phone games, and not even the story games like Journey that I love so much. Google’s Tilt Brush has been the standout experience for my family. My dad is an artist, and Tilt Brush has brought him into giggling fits a number of times. Seeing someone who struggled through Journey with me have such an intuitive and fun experience with Tilt Brush has convinced me that virtual reality, in whatever form it takes, is going to be a lasting and encompassing experience in the years to come.
Brigador gets the award for my favorite game of 2016 that most of my play time is logged in 2015. I played a lot of this game in Early Access, and the experience has only improved with Brigador’s official release. For those not in the know, Brigador is an isometric mech action game billed as a “Kool-Aide Man simulator” by its creators because of the characters’ propensity for smashing through walls. Brigador is a challenging game, at least in part due to its controls. Each type of vehicle controls differently, and the game’s combat requires constant awareness of positioning, facing, and aim. Stealth ends up being a surprisingly viable option, making smashing through walls like the Kool-Aid man to surprise enemies a critical strategy. Most enemies can be dispatched with ease if they are not prepared to take you on, but concentrated fire can shred even the toughest of tanks. It is a fantastic experience: tactical, stylish, satisfying, and all backed with some of the best gritty mech fiction I have read in a long time. Also, the soundtrack rules.
3) Monster Hunter Generations
Look, I just really like Monster Hunter. It is a series that has lived on incremental improvements, repeated monsters, and repeated maps, but with Generations, Capcom took a few exciting steps forward. The addition of Styles, and Hunter Arts has broadened the hunting experience. The weapons feel alive and exciting, and the fights have lost none of the edge. At least for me. A lot of people on the internet claim this game is a lot easier than previous entries, but I suppose I am not good enough at the games to make that call, because I still feel challenged. Either way, in this game I have used more weapons, fought more monsters, and all before high rank. Also, I got to go to the official Capcom Monster Hunter meetup in San Francisco last month, and it ruled. Meeting so many people as excited about the series as I am, and getting to hunt with total strangers rekindled my love of the series, and definitely contributed to this game placing so highly on this list. Plus, I won a Tigrex statue in a raffle by completing in game challenges, and that felt pretty good.
2) Titanfall 2
Titanfall 2 is my favorite multiplayer shooter. This is a major endorsement given that this year also saw the release of Overwatch, one of the most elegantly designed games I have ever played. I never got into the Left Trigger, Right Trigger shooter genre. Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4 both pulled me in with their excellent single player campaigns, but I bounced off of the multiplayer modes for those games. It felt like I could not defend myself from attack in those games, and I did not have the speed on the triggers that I needed in order to do well. Titanfall 2 has alleviated those problems for me. For one, the Titans allow for a slower pace of play from the Pilot combat. In a Titan, I can survive an incredible amount of damage, and take down waves of NPC enemies and human-controlled Pilots. With the battery system, I can even remain in my Titan indefinitely with a supportive team. Pilot combat is where the game shows how it has solved the problems I had with more traditional Left Trigger, Right Trigger shooters: in Titanfall 2, I can outrun bullets. In the Call of Duty games, once an opponent has gotten me in their sights, I have no chance of escaping. Maybe I can get a lucky headshot in and survive their attack, but most likely I would just get gunned down. In Titanfall 2, I can get moving so quickly, that I can get out of an enemy’s cross-hairs, outmaneuver them, and take them down. It is a major change to the genre that gives me a feeling of agency that none of its competitors ever have. Also, the single player campaign seems great. I have only gotten through a couple missions in it because the mulitplayer keeps drawing me in.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Stardew Valley
Not since Journey have I been so surprised by a game. When I first saw Stardew Valley so highly recommended by Dan Ryckert of one Giant Bomb dot com, I expected a cutsey game that would be fun to while away some time with. What I did not expect was to fall so head over heels in love with a fictional town and its pixelated inhabitants. Stardew Valley delivers an experience that is at once free and constrained, relaxing and stressful. While at first glance, it seems like a simple farming simulator, you can only work for so long on your farm in a given day. This forces you out into the town where you find a town filled with well written characters and some truly interesting mysteries. From skeleton arcade cabinets, to monster filled mines, to broken bridges, and a wizard’s tower, the town of Stardew Valley is littered with tantalizing secrets. It is also the game that taught me to let go of some of my desire for efficiency in gaming. Whenever I play games, I feel badly if I perform less than optimally. This used to mean that I spent hours repeating sections and levels, missing huge chunks of games that I never finished because I burned out trying to nail that perfect run from the get go. Stardew Valley is a game that initially seems like an optimizers’ nightmare: every day is limited by your character’s Energy as well as time, and there are so many things to do that someone trying to nail an optimal pattern would probably never make it past the first day. So, I had to let go. Fitting that a game about breaking out of a schedule and enjoying the simple things taught me not to worry so much about its schedule. Stardew Valley became something I returned to daily, both for short trips and for multi-hour sessions, and it never left me feeling bored. It is one of the most soothing games I have played in years, and I am always excited to boot it up and see what else I can turn up in the valley.
2016s Not 2016 Game of the Year: Dark Souls
This year, I began listening to the Bonfireside Chats podcast. It is a podcast that takes a deep look at all of From Software’s Souls games, from Demon’s Souls to Bloodborne. I played Demon’s Souls when it first came out, and though I learned to respect its tough but fair attitude, I eventually moved on to other games, and never finished it. When Dark Souls came out, I bought it for the Playstation 3, and played through a solid chunk of it. Unfortunately, after taking down the Gargoyles that guard the Undead Parish bell, I got lost. I had no idea where to go next, and spent so many hours wandering aimlessly, that I gave up on the game. About a year later, a friend of mine got into Dark Souls on the Xbox 360, so I picked up a used copy and embarked on my journey again. This time, I found the door that I needed to unlock after the gargoyles, made it all of the way through Ornstein and Smough in Anor Londo, and then just kind of stopped. The slow pace of play and the slew of new games coming out eventually drew me away. In 2015 I played through Bloodborne, and actually beat it. I had a free week with no work, and the faster pace of the game allowed me to drive through to the end.
Fast forward to now, and the Bonefireside Chats podcast inspired me to dive back into the Souls side of the series and rediscover what makes it so good. I bought all three Dark Souls games on PC, and began my journey.
As of now, I am deeper into Dark Souls than I have ever been, and I am having a blast. Knowing so much more about the game, but also getting to rediscover that feeling of finding a new area and not knowing what to do with it are so exciting. The deliberate combat and tough but fair challenges really cannot be had anywhere else. If nothing else, Dark Souls is a master class in level design, and something that should not be missed by any game developer.