Writers are often prone to hyperbole, but I don’t think anyone will object that 2016 was one of the wildest years I’ve ever experienced. At the tail end of September, I finally came out as a woman to the rest of the world, and the positive response wiped away one decade of fear that I had bottled up inside. On the flipside, there were plenty of events both intimate and worldwide that have made me desperately worried for our future as a queer community, as a nation, and as a species. Regardless of this bittersweet past, I am still here, typing away with Colin, and we don’t plan on leaving any time soon.
All that aside, 2016 was a fantastic year for games. We had unexpectedly triumphant returns of classic franchises, brand-new studios acing their first commercial projects, and a mountain of other titles that were as rock-solid as you can get. Before I present my favorite ten, unordered games, I just want to touch on a few titles that didn’t make the cut:
Thumper: An amazing rhythm game that I’ll probably never finish. It’s just too hard!
That Dragon, Cancer: Important, beautiful work, but I can’t “recommend” something so devastating to everyone.
The Witness: You’re lovely, and your “aha” moments are incredible! I’d add you in a heartbeat if you weren’t so stand-offish to gamers with disabilities and were a little less full of yourself.
House of the Dying Sun: Short, awe-inspiring take on space combat that I’ll never have the skill to finish.
And here are the actual top ten.
At the tail end of 2016, when everything felt hopeless and I couldn’t imagine a way out of our encroaching political nightmare, VA-11 HALL-A was exactly what I needed. In the heart of an oppressive city where most folks are just doing what they can to stay alive, you mix drinks at a bar that offers respite from reality. The bartending itself isn’t much of a challenge: the difficulty comes from understanding your patrons and serving whatever they need at that exact moment. It’s a laid-back, talkative game that understands how we can still flourish in a miserable world, offering a ray of comfort for the dark times ahead.
Ladykiller in a Bind
Well, I never thought I would be giving accolades to an erotic visual novel in previous years, but Christine Love’s latest deserves the praise. Set on a week-long cruise, you’re cross-dressing as your malevolent twin brother, manipulating and flirting with his classmates without blowing your cover. Whether you’re screwing them with their pants on or off, Ladykiller in a Bind is a remarkably well-written game that, until a regretful detour near the end, manages to portray love and contentious relationships with a level of detail seldom seen elsewhere.
After the cramped, hateful mess that was Hitman: Absolution, Io Interactive rekindled the series’ freeform creativity and fixed the rough edges that could turn even Blood Money into a miserable affair. So much painstaking detail went into each map that I was thankful for the episodic model: I never felt rushed to move on, so I spent hours in Sapienza, spiking soups with expired sauce and posing as an adulterous golf instructor. Hitman is such a joy to play that even my outright failures only felt like temporary setbacks, and I was always eager to pop back in, piano wire at the ready.
Before the world lost its mind over Stranger Things, Oxenfree offered its own idea of a “Steven Spielberg meets Stephen King” crossover. A group of older teens on an evening island excursion are hunted by malevolent spirits, and can only fight back with the short-wave radios they thoughtfully packed. As we survived together, I grew fond of each companion (yes, even the one girl who picks fights with everyone else) and enraptured by a tale of regret that spanned multiple generations. This year had plenty of great stories, but Night School Studio’s debut effort managed to stand above the rest.
I could touch on Overwatch’s spectacular roster of heroes (and the mountains of fan fiction they’ve inspired), or the sweeping orchestral score that perfectly caps every match. I could also discuss how easily it teaches every role in the game: if my team needs a Bastion for their final stand, I can swap out my Tracer without much fuss. But Overwatch’s greatest claim to fame is sapping the toxicity that clings to most competitive online games. If a friend ever asks me to recommend a community that’s friendly toward newcomers, I will toss them a copy without hesitation (in this fantasy scenario where I have enough money to buy Overwatch for all my friends).
Forget the guns, fists and swords for a moment: at its core, Superhot is an ingenious, bite-sized puzzle game wrapped in a stylish first-person shooter. Instead of moving blocks, you’re manipulating time to decide whose nose to break and which angle you’ll break it from. As you methodically clean house, then watch a full-speed replay that would make John Wick blush, you can’t help but feel like a true action hero.
I never expected to see another game like Riven: its focus on utilizing the tools and language of an alien society never inspired other developers to follow the same path. That might be why Cyan spearheaded a Kickstarter-powered resurrection to make the follow-up Riven always deserved! Simply getting lost in Obduction’s fantastical world is its own pleasure, but each contraption you solve brings you one step closer to cracking its secrets. For once, “lived-in” isn’t hyperbolic.
After the swift erosion of Titanfall 1’s multiplayer and the weak beta, I didn’t have much faith that Titanfall 2 would be the follow-up I was looking for. I wasn’t prepared for a campaign that would rival FPS juggernauts like Half-Life, switching things up in nearly every level without tripping over itself. Even though “The frontier is worth every part of this fight!” got old by the thousandth time I heard it, I would take this tighter multiplayer package over the awkward dialogue during a match any day of the week. With any luck, Titanfall 2 will far outlive its predecessor, and there will always be Titans raining from the sky.
Stuck in a horrible situation with no simple answers, Henry takes off and becomes a fire lookout for a national park. The resulting adventure is a gorgeously rendered reflection on escapism, overactive imaginations and coming to terms with your responsibilities. It could use more moments devoted to free-form exploration, and some of the twists muddy the waters, but I don’t see myself forgetting Firewatch’s lessons any time soon.
Anatomy takes around 30-40 minutes to complete, contains no monsters, and consists of going from room to room, picking up tapes until it ends. Despite this simplicity, it is one of the most horrifying games I have ever experienced: without giving too much away, I will never look at a house in the same way again.