Hey. How ya doin’? If I had to guess, I’d say you’ve been better. Most of us have. I don’t like the narratives of “good” or “bad” years, because it feels arbitrary and distracts from the responsibility for events… but boy, a lot of trash happened in that twelve month period. If we don’t step up, 2017 will be way worse. That’s just how societal momentum goes.
I’m not here to be a bummer, though. Our problems are real, and I expect we’ll talk a lot about them on Scanline in the coming months- but with a year come and gone, it’s a time for reflection, and for awards. It was a great year for gaming, and it’s with pride that I present my personal ten games of the year.
Not Actually on the List
Listen. I know what year it is. I know how long Dota 2 has been out, and I know that it was on my list last year. I am not gonna do repeats. I could? But I think that would cheapen things, and I’m not going to. Dota 2 is not actually on my top ten games of 2016, I just want to mention it in the same breath. And in fact, I sort of have to. How could I possibly talk about my gaming in 2016 without talking about the game I have played almost every week for the whole year, and continue to run a podcast about?
Dota has changed, it’s grown… but it also hasn’t. It’s still the way too complicated, way too impenetrable game you learn forever. I have plenty to say about it, but that’s what my podcast is for, right? Still- it is the game I played the most in 2015… and 2016, and will likely be in 2017 as well. Had to give it some love.
The Real List
- Mafia III
As a person that aspires to games criticism, Mafia III was a real challenge for me. I know open world games very well, as well as third person shooters. I haven’t, however, played a game that faced racism with such a frank and direct attitude. I was extremely grateful that a big, triple A game was tackling these issues head on, and not just hinting at them coyly… but what did I think? And then, as a white male American, was what I thought of any actual relevance? I saw people say “Oh, this is what it feels like to be discriminated against,” and I snorted. No. You can set down the controller and walk away. This is all opt-in for you. This is not what discrimination feels like. But it also felt lame to say “well I’m white so I guess I can’t comment.”
That conflict kept me from writing anything about Mafia III, and then our plans to record a podcast about it fell apart due to scheduling conflicts with our intended guest. As a result, we’ve been essentially radio silence about the game, and that was not intentional. I think, years from now, we’ll look at Mafia III as a turning point in how triple A games addressed cultural issues.You don’t need “elves and dwarves” analogies, you don’t need to couch your opinions in “but both sides are equally right” cowardice. You can take a stance, and be firm, and your game will do fine- and be an example to the industry at the same time.
Mafia III has its flaws- the gameplay and mission design gets tedious near the end, the story has a few small missteps, and the cops system feels more like a good idea than actually being meaningful… but it’s admirable for what it tries, and more than that, it’s a good fucking game even with its politics aside. The shooting is crisp, the acting is incredible, the storytelling is distinct and engaging. You should play Mafia III.
- Enter the Gungeon
It’s worth saying how close this game came to not making it, despite all the time I spent with it this year. Only the Supply Drop update, which is still in opt-in beta on Steam, pushed it over the edge and onto this list. The additions and gameplay tweaks of that update fix some major concerns I had with the game’s flow, and I’m looking forward to it being finalized and pushed out of beta.
Enter the Gungeon was always going to labor in Nuclear Throne’s shadow, even though it does plenty to give itself its own identity. It’s got a stranger sense of humor, it’s more bullet hell than twitch shooter, and the power curve is far more restrained as opposed to the out-of-control Nuclear Throne. It is also more even-keel, and more fair- NT’s bosses and level generation were apt to screw you, hard, in unanticipated ways. Ultimately, that sense of energy, chaos, and speed in NT was addicting, and Gungeon plays a little too slowly to reach those heights.
But it’s not fair to just say “Hey, I like NT more.” Gungeon is dense and fun, with a great aesthetic and a fantastic variety of bosses, areas, optional quests, items, and more. It can get a bit too bullet spongy at times, and sometimes new weapons don’t really feel like upgrades so much as different presentations of what you already have, but Gungeon offers a procedurally generated bullet dodging experience that is crammed with small goofs and tough-but-fair challenge. Just don’t go in expecting a Vlambeer creation, and you’ll have a hell of a time.
- Titanfall 2
It is honestly ridiculous that I like this game. It’s a first person shooter- I’m sick and tired of those. It’s scripted all to hell- to my mind the surest way to make a shooter even more boring. And it’s brought to you by the former makers of Call of Duty, and you would have to pay me quite a bit of money to ever play a Call of Duty campaign ever again. And yet.
And yet this Call of Duty-style scripted-ass first person shooter really astonished me. You can’t really blame me, though- who would have expected splashes of Gundam? The insane time travel level, the arena factory, the grappling hook… the game was a parade of surprises. And, if I’m being honest? I barely touched the multiplayer. As well done as it is, my dislike of that style of multiplayer remains. Even Titanfall 2’s excellent execution couldn’t change my mind. The campaign is good enough to earn a spot on this list by itself.
You would think that reducing the responsibilities of the crown to A or B choices would ease the burden. That it’d be far easier to play at king if you only ever had two options, and it was just as simple as picking the right one.
Reigns is not a game about hard choices on its face. Certainly some choices are hard, but initially it seems like a fairly simple balancing act. Keep the church, military, peasants, and your budget all topped off, and everything will be fine. That’s a facade. It’s first torn away with the reveal that letting any of them go too high is as instantly fatal as letting them get too low, and then you are cursed by actual Satan and are trapped in a dungeon, fight a Crusade, have an affair, are kidnapped… and all of this in the same bloodline, as every failure means the death of that heir, but your soul cursed to pass to the next one for all eternity.
The art style is simple and charming at first and quickly grows sinister, the situations you find yourself in are at times the pinnacle of gallows humor, and it has that addictive “one more turn” hook. Only, in this case, it’s “one more life,” ending inevitably in your horrible, violent murder. Having this symphony of worse and worse choices on my phone meant it was always just a few seconds away. What a good game.
I’ve had a strange journey with Overwatch- there was a time, in the heat of that first few months, that I was sure it was going to be in my top three on this list. Certainly games have come out since that surprised me, but I think it’s more that I’ve cooled on the game. Overwatch is a fantastic game with a lot of great ideas that, for my tastes, ends up flying a little too close to the sun.
You wanna know what a hard job balancing is? Look at Overwatch, and its roster of twenty-three, and all the work that has been done trying to make all of them viable. This is Blizzard, one of the most talented studios in the world, and they haven’t been able to achieve a happy state of balance. They’ve gotten hotter or colder at certain points, but it’s never felt like the meta was in a healthy place, to this relatively average player.
I love the art style, I love the hero design, I love what the game wants to be, and sometimes is. But I have barely played in months, and I don’t imagine I’ll end up really coming back until they’ve made the whole roster feel worth playing. It’s fantastic, and my time with it has been great… but every time I think about playing more, my mind wanders to Dota instead.
- Pokemon Moon
It really steams me up that for all the time I spent yelling at Nintendo what they needed to do to “fix” Pokemon going forward, they completely ignored all of that advice- and then still shipped a game that I absolutely love. My passion for Pokemon Silver burns eternal, but if I make the effort to filter out my nostalgia for a moment, I have to admit that this is the best game in the entire series: a series I love deeply even as it drives me crazy.
Why are EVs and IVs still here? Why is the online such an outrageously shitty and unintuitive experience? Why don’t they trim the roster that is now the better part of a thousand, why don’t they rethink some of this combat… well, I guess because they just don’t have to. They don’t have to to make a game that sells astonishingly well, or to make one that is exceedingly charming, friendly, fun, and deep. This isn’t what I wanted, but it is (I admit begrudgingly) what I want to play a ton more of. I just hope they add more clothes through DLC, because the fashion doesn’t even compare to X and Y.
- BlazBlue: Central Fiction
The Wheel of Fate is turning… after four main entries, a further three revisions, and an alarming number of spinoffs, the story arc that started in November of 2008 has come to a close. Like most sequels, Central Fiction leaves room for future projects if desired, but it brings very definite closure to the struggle of the main character, Ragna the Bloodedge. If you’re not familiar with BlazBlue you likely just winced at that name, and that’s okay. BlazBlue is a fighting gamer’s fighting game.
I can only imagine how incoherent the game must look to outside viewers- in addition to the standard mess of special effects, dashes, air dashes, and more, BlazBlue also has extra gauges depending on the characters, announcer lines that make no sense (“Negative Warning! Active Flow!”) but beneath that obtuse exterior is the most well-crafting system for fighting I’ve ever played. But this is all just BlazBlue 101- why Central Fiction?
For finally wrapping up the story of BlazBlue, for introducing more characters and making welcome changes to old ones, and for introducing me to Terumi, a character who is so completely my style. When you have five different curb stomps available to you, that’s a good damn character. I have had the most fun this year in multiplayer with BlazBlue, disqualifying Dota. It’s a hell of a thing. This is the fighting game I’ll measure others against for years to come.
- Stardew Valley
I think my generation, “millennials,” are folk of pretty simple dreams. Sure, we’d like to make millions and change the world and live in luxury. But you know what we’d really like? To own a house, and have neighbors that don’t want us to die. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that be a fucking alright thing?
Maybe that was too real, huh? In any case, Stardew Valley is a game about simple dreams and humble aspirations. Your customized player character gets a chance at a new life when their grandfather wills you his farm in a small town in the country. You take this opportunity to throw away your awful job, and begin anew as a farmer. In real life that would be stressful as shit. And at first, it is. Are you wasting your days? Don’t you need to make more money, win over the townsfolk more swiftly… work harder, faster, better, stronger?
And then it hits you. There’s no rent. Your friendship with others doesn’t decay. There’s no upkeep on… anything. If you spend a day watching TV and eating carrots… who cares? You are free to just be, and in that moment the real Stardew Valley opens up before you. It’s lighthearted, it’s charming, it’s fun, and it will keep going for as long as you want it to. Take a load off, friend. The farm is always there if you want it… and if not, it will wait, without pressuring you.
What a long, strange journey it’s been. I haven’t liked a Hitman game since Hitman 2, and even that I mostly liked because I was a high schooler starved for games, and had to get the most out of every game I played. I never got deep enough in to see that the series’ comedy was intentional, and outrageous- I thought I was being smart by snorting at 47’s flat voice acting (“I need to use the baaaathroom.”) and some of the absurd assassination methods you could apply. Jokes on you, high school Colin. That was the point. It’s a ridiculous series. And the 2016 Hitman amplified, improved, and made easier to discover that ridiculous comedy, mixed with solid and enjoyable level design.
Shoot down a plane with an old cannon. Drop a light fixture on a dramatic fashion designer. Slip into the basement of a hospital as a target awaits a heart transplant, and throw his new heart in the trash. The older series entries were either way, way more subtle, or actually were torn by the question of whether this was all badass or hilarious. 2016 was the year they definitely made up their minds- it’s hilarious. It can be badass at times, but the laughs are king. And hey, it plays really damn well too.
- VA-11 Hall-A
At multiple times throughout the year, my love of VA-11 Hall-A has made me question my own judgment, and qualifications as a critic. When the game came out, no one was talking about it (in my circles). And why should they, I asked myself. It’s a visual novel with some simple drink mixing mechanics, and a 90s anime sci-fi aesthetic. Like Read Only Memories before it, it was born out of a passion for games like Snatcher and Policenauts, and that style resonates deeply with me. Maybe I’m just being blinded by my appreciation of a few particular elements.
And you know what? Fuck that. VA-11 Hall-A is the best game that came out this year. For all the cyberpunk dystopias, or futuristic utopias, VA-11 Hall-A talks about a future that is truer to what I’ve seen- the world is a bit darker, the systems of society are a bit crueler and more uncaring, but the people are a light in that darkness. They make jokes, they worry about what people think about them, they comfort each other, they care. I would put Dorothy, Alma, and Sei up against the rest of 2016’s new characters- they’re head and shoulders above anything else we saw this year. It made me understand people I’ve heard for years say they wanted to get a beer with a character, or go to a party with them. I thought it was just an expression, but no. I genuinely would like to just sit and talk to these fictional characters. They are just great people.
What’s more, as a person with a background in the food and service industry, it was really resonate to play a game about being a bartender that was clearly written from the perspective of someone who’d waited on customers themselves. An attitude I’ve come to associate with my favorite people in the food industry pervades the whole thing- mild exasperation with how shitty or inconsiderate some people can be, while still appreciating them for how funny, caring, and above all, human they can be. There are bad customers in VA-11 Hall-A, and they aren’t entirely pleasant to deal with. But they aren’t monsters either- they’re just people. They have their own reasons, and stories, and they pay their tab like anyone else.
I love VA-11 Hall-A for its optimism about mankind, pessimism about the systems we build, passion for the art I’ve loved from years past, and a cast of characters that felt more charming and thoughtful than any I’ve ever encountered. It’s the best game of 2016.
So that’s my 2016 games of the year, done and dusted. In the coming days, we’ll have our Gimmick Award podcasts, where we discuss categorized awards for the year’s games, and then our actual GotY podcasts themselves. And from there? 2017 awaits. Or perhaps that’s the wrong choice of words- it’s not waiting. We need to run and meet it, and lead it towards a better future. See you there.