by Adi Stein
2016 was one of the best and worst years of my life. I saw my country fall into the hands of bigots and xenophobes but I also married the love of my life. How the hell is this possible? How can one year be filled with such polar opposites? We could analyze the pros and cons of 2016 for the next five hundred years, but you didn’t come here to read that. You came here to read about some awesome games that I played this year and, hell, that’s exactly what you’re gonna get.
This year gaming told new stories, played with new mechanics and visual styles, and fine tuned some of my favorite franchises. I met complicated and fascinating new characters and got to hang out with some of my old favorites. I gained new perspectives about profoundly difficult subjects while still laughing with friends during all night play sessions. So without anymore filler, here you go: My top ten games of 2016. Enjoy!
#10 The Witness
I have yet to finish Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. I’ve entered the mountain and descended into its cybernetic ruins. I completed about a dozen of the puzzles within said ruins, and then I got stuck. It’s not the first time I got stuck in this game, but it has been, for now, the last. The Witness is a game filled with these moments of frustrations but because it is, it’s also a game filled with the highest adrenaline fueled highs that I experienced this year. For every puzzle that stomped on my brain, I completed something that I felt was impossible. For every knot that the game made in my stomach, it also made me jump up for joy and literally scream out loud, “I AM A FUCKING GENIUS!” The Witness is complicated and gorgeous and maddening and rewarding beyond belief. I’m sure I will finish it one day, just as soon as I regain my courage.
Firewatch had me from the first ten minutes, which is particularly incredible when you learn that the first ten minutes of that game are essentially a text adventure. Through succinct and effective writing we quickly learn about the emotional journey and stakes of our protagonist, Henry. Without spoiling too much, Henry’s life has taken a deeply upsetting turn for the worse and so he has taken a job in the mountains of Wyoming, hoping to find a purpose and get away from his problems. It’s a deeply touching story that disguises itself as a thriller, ultimately revealing its true self as a personal exploration of love, life, and the complexities of human relationships.
#8 That Dragon, Cancer
Earlier this year, when I played That Dragon, Cancer, I wrote a piece about how moved I was by the game. I wrote about how it related to my family’s own struggle with cancer; about how devastating and scary losing a loved one can be. I wrote that piece in the heat of the moment, having just completed the game. I haven’t touched it again since then but I still find myself learning about myself from the game. Ryan and Amy Green’s moving tribute to their son and his fight against leukemia not only provides insight into a family’s fight against cancer but it also shows us the toll of any illness on a family. The same story could be told about a fight against AIDS or even addiction. What’s moving about the game is how personal it is. It is the Greens’ story and it isn’t shy about it, which is exactly what allows the game to be such a clear reflection of any family’s struggle with loss. It is profound and devastating and one of 2016’s must play gaming experiences.
And now for something completely different! I’m a relentless and unapologetic Double Fine fan. For my money, Double Fine is one of the most creative and unique developers in the industry today, and Headlander is the perfect example of just that. With a 1970s sci-fi aesthetic, Headlander has you playing a decapitated head that bounces from body to body, trying to defeat the evil AI, Methuselah. I was drawn in by the world and the visual style and I stayed to find every collectible and open every door. I’ve never been a completionist in that sense. I’ve never felt like I needed to get every single little everything that’s in a game. But Headlander makes it both fun and easy by highlighting where the secrets are on the map. This doesn’t take the fun or joy out of it, though, as the map simply shows you where things are and doesn’t tell you how to get to them. Understandably this might turn some people off, but for me it simply added to the fun of playing.
#6 Ratchet and Clank
I remember getting the original Ratchet and Clank for PS2 back in the day. I loved that game but never actually finished it thanks to what felt like an impossibly difficult final boss sequence. But this year I decided to give the reboot a try and boy oh boy am I thrilled that I did. Having had years and years of sequels and mechanical refinement, this entry into Sony’s flagship franchise is easily the best one yet. It’s gorgeous and just plain fun to play. I’m in the middle of my third play through, looking in every nook and cranny, trying to find upgrades and improve my ridiculous arsenal. For any action-platformer fan this is a must play.
I’ve never had so much fun yelling at my friends. Overcooked! takes the simply premise of serving food and elevates it to crazy heights. I had a blast playing through the entire game with my wife and then having friends over to join in on the crazy. There is always one more task than there are people to complete them, which naturally leads to kitchen-scorching fires and completely missing voices by the end of the night. All it takes is one wrong move and down goes the kitchen, both in flames and laughter.
#4 Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
The definitive end to one of Sony’s most significant franchise, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a masterwork of interactive storytelling and graphical fidelity. By focusing on characters and emotions, Uncharted 4 goes places that this franchise has only hinted at before. Yes there are still massive and mind-blowing set pieces. Yes there are more explosions than Michael Bay would know what to do with. Yes Nathan Drake, Naughty Dog’s self proclaimed “everyman,” still kills hundreds of people by the end of the game. But all of that is second to the relationships and characters we see develop over the course of this epic journey. This entry is also home to some of the biggest risks we’ve seen in the series yet. Whether it’s branching dialogue, large, open environments, or a dangerously slow first half, we see the series do things that it has never tried before and it all pays off gloriously. I haven’t revisited the game since my first play-through, but that’s simply because I found myself so fully satisfied with the game by the end. It cannot and should not be missed.
Hitman was maybe the biggest gaming surprise of 2016. I have never liked this franchise and I had no faith in this installment's episodic structure. But here I am with Hitman in my top three games of 2016 and it has earned it, in large part, because this game knows exactly what it is. It’s not some hyper self-serious simulation of life as an assassin. It’s a video-game-ass-video-game that knows how ridiculous it is to hurl a fire extinguisher at a person’s face and have it perfectly knock them out. It says to players, “Here is your toolset and here is what needs to get done. You figure out the rest.” But unlike other “make your own fun” type games that came out this year and were less interesting (I’m looking at you, No Man’s Sky), Hitman provides well crafted and elaborate environments and confines through which to explore all the potential that its developers have created. I played through basically the entire main game over the course of a 24 hour Extra Life stream and I still find myself coming back to boost my mastery, complete escalations, and eliminate Elusive Targets. I love this world of assassination and I have a feeling that I will be exploring it for a long time to come.
I’m not a shooter fan. I’m not a big multiplayer guy. But dammit if I won’t give Blizzard at shot at almost anything it does, and thank God for that because Overwatch has found a large place in my heart. Through a diverse cast of lovable characters, Overwatch has mastered the art of joy and love, which is surprising when talking about a game that technically falls into a genre called “first person shooter.” The key here is Blizzard’s focus on the positive. It doesn’t matter how many kills you have or how helpful you were over the course of a match. The game rewards you either way and makes sure to let you know when you’ve done something awesome, whether through its brilliant “Play of the Game” system or straightforward postgame medals. It’s also a game that I can hop into if I have 15 minutes or a long night to relax. I love its warm atmosphere, lovable characters, heart pounding action, and dedication to its community. It is the epitome of gaming at its best: joyful and fun.
#1 Stardew Valley
At face value, Stardew Valley sounds boring as shit. It’s a farming/social simulator about life in a small town. But within that basic frame is something truly unique and personal. Within it is a game about love and being loved; a game about hard work and community; a game about escaping an oppressive world to find what really makes you happy. And as I’m writing this it is finally hitting me why I connected with this game so much this year. The world is not what I want it to be. It’s not what many of us want it to be, and as a result we are learning that we are not who we want to be. But Stardew Valley says that we can change anything. If we look around and are dissatisfied with the job we have or the life we’ve built or the world we live in, then we have the power to get up and fix it. Now, none of this would matter if the game weren’t fun to play, but fortunately it is. It’s satisfying to harvest crops and make connections. I loved getting married, improving my home, having a child, expanding my farm, and improving the scope and potential of what I can do. There are concrete goals to be achieved and fun ways to go about achieving them. All of this lead to me creating a character and life that I can be proud of. Stardew Valley does something for me that no game has every done: It makes me want to be a better person.
Well, that's it! Tough year for the world, great year for video games. Now if you'll excuse me, I've gotta catch up on The Witcher III, Dishonored 2, The Last Guardian, SUPERHOT, and then still find time to maintain my farm in Stardew Valley. Hope you all enjoyed reading and have a happy 2017!