2016’s year in games mirrored the year in movies in one notable way: it was a great year for indies and a terrible year for blockbusters. Many major AAA releases either underwhelmed or simply whelmed, coasting by with a passing grade without truly electrifying any players - or at least, without electrifying me. Indies, though, had a terrific year, advancing video game narratives and gameplay in new and exciting directions.
For better or worse, 2016 was also the year virtual reality arrived. Most of the current crop of VR products failed to take off in a significant way, but a few pieces of VR software displayed true innovation, approaching VR as a new medium rather than a new platform onto which to port existing games. We got a ton of terrible VR short films, a bellyfull of nausea, and maybe a dozen or so VR games worth playing. It's not there yet. Maybe it never will be, in a commercial sense.
But you don't click through to a Top 10 list for a preamble, so here, in alphabetical order, is my completely objective top ten games for 2016.
Batman: A Telltale Games Series (full Episode 1 review)
Telltale has been reinventing and putting their own tilts on popular franchises for years now, but never have they made so distinctive a mark - perhaps even getting closer to the core of a franchise - than with Batman. The studio finally put all arguments about the title character to rest by letting the player decide just how brutal or compassionate to make him, while spending equal time with his far more interesting alter ego Bruce Wayne. A personal story and a fresh new take on Batman’s roster of supporting characters only add to the Batcave Telltale filled with delights with this game. Shit. I guess I like Batman again now.
Darkest Dungeon (full review)
As a writer, I’m always interested to see games doing new and innovative things with story and character. And while Darkest Dungeon leaves most of its storytelling up to the player, it does so with some exceptionally smart applications of character. Each one of your adventurers has a list of traits, helpful and harmful, and can be renamed XCOM-style to guarantee an unhealthy level of emotional attachment. The game’s combat system is great, too, but it’s the weird, procedurally-generated characters that stick with me. Focus on the flavour text instead of the stats, and use your imagination, and Darkest Dungeon becomes a team-up story full of camaraderie and betrayal.
Firewatch (full review, offsite)
I was sobbing within fifteen minutes of starting Firewatch. No other game has had that effect on me, and Firewatch managed to do it entirely with text, before displaying a single pixel of in-engine graphics. Once the Olly Moss-inspired environments pop in, you’ll frequently gasp at the beauty of what you’re seeing, and you’ll laugh, cry, and obsess along with the game’s characters as their story plays out. Few games have voice acting this good, or dialogue systems this natural (although see also this year’s Oxenfree, which nearly made this list), or - most importantly - characters this compelling. Henry and Delilah are my favourite in-game relationship this year, but you’ll have to play the game to discover what the nature of that relationship is.
Headmaster (PSVR review)
I got a couple weeks with a PlayStation VR for review when it launched in October. Though the hardware isn’t the best in its class, it’s solid, and it pretty much works out of the box, which is important. It’s also got a decent collection of software, from indie puzzlers to AAA action games, but curiously, the best title I played was a sports title. Based around the act of heading soccer balls - a mechanic designed for VR if there ever was one - Headmaster puts players in some kind of soccer prison and forces them to head balls at targets in order to progress. The basic mechanic’s kind of fun, but it’s the clever twists on it - and the surprisingly funny writing - that turn Headmaster into a full, satisfying, and addicting game. Just watch out for whiplash.
Inside (full review)
If Firewatch had me ugly-crying, Inside did the opposite, and somehow summoned an ugly laugh from me. Its final act is one of the most joyous, ridiculous, bizarre, and fist-pumpingly awesome experiences I’ve had with a game controller. Video exists of me literally jumping up and down cackling with glee while playing it. But while that third act’s great, it gets its true power from the focused, compact, and atmospheric game that leads up to it. Playdead surpassed its previous game Limbo in every way with Inside, creating an eerie game that invites multiple thematic and narrative readings. All very intellectual. But let me reiterate: I cackled and leapt about while playing a video game. Takes quite a special game to get my increasingly overweight ass to do that nowadays.
The Last Guardian (full review)
The most anticipated game of the year (except, perhaps, for the anomaly that was No Man’s Sky), The Last Guardian inevitably caught flak for the performance issues and dated camera controls that resulted from its decade-long development period. But hot damn, I loved it anyway - it’s a sweeping, beautiful adventure story with themes seemingly as old as the Earth, and it’s all centred around the most believable in-game creature I’ve ever played with. In Trico, I found not just a quest companion, but a friend - and one who loves pats, at that. Ignore the frame-rate obessed gamers and give The Last Guardian a chance. It’s a shaggy, flawed masterpiece, and every bit worth the wait.
As a committed cyclist and pedestrian, I have a keen interest in public transportation. Enter Mini Metro, by the small Wellington-based studio Dinosaur Polo Club, which turns public transit design into a minimalist game of connect-the-dots that seems simple at the outset, but like all public transit problems, quickly becomes more complex. Many of my favourite cities - Montreal, Melbourne, and the Sisyphean public transport nightmare that is Auckland - are included, each offering slightly different twists on the game’s basic formula. Mini Metro is addictive for its score-attack system and for its basic gameplay loop, encouraging players to become ever more efficient and clever. It’s also great for playing on public transport. Handy, that.
The best shooter of 2016 wasn’t made by DICE or Infinity Ward. It was made by a tiny independent team who pared down the shooter experience and centred it on one key gameplay element: the passage of time. Time moves only when you do in Superhot, turning its frenzied, often difficult shootouts into precisely orchestrated orgies of violence. The graphics are clean and minimal, the weapons basic, and the story derivative (save a terrific third-act twist), but the central gameplay mechanic is so goddamn clever and well-executed that it doesn’t matter. It’s fucking fun, and unspeakably cool to see in action once you've cleared a level.
Titanfall 2 (full review)
I was in the small camp of people who loved the first Titanfall, and I’m in the even smaller but even more loving equivalent for Titanfall 2. Respawn Entertainment took its winning free-running and mech combat formula and honed it to near perfection, creating a fluid multiplayer game full of kickass moments. But it’s the single-player that truly amazed: in an era laden with chest-high walls and shooting galleries, Respawn turned in a surprisingly adorable campaign whose every level is packed to the brim with gameplay ideas, some of which could have sustained games entirely unto themselves. Some of them probably will.
The Witness (full review)
Jonathan Blow’s exploration/puzzle game arrived with typically quiet confidence. Its vivid, colourful environments concealed hundreds of deceptively simple puzzles that had its players seeing grids in their sleep for weeks. I still haven’t finished every puzzle - hell, I haven’t even found every puzzle - but the environmental design, firm but accommodating structure, and ingenious inversions of its puzzle mechanics have stuck with me. Blow took what could have been a simple 2D puzzler and turned it into a full-fledged 3D extravaganza, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Witness didn’t just teach us how to solve puzzles - it taught us how to learn.
Games I wish I’d played - or played enough to consider for this list: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided; Dishonored 2; Doom; Final Fantasy XV; Orwell; Sorcery; and Watch Dogs 2.
Most wanted for 2017: Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, and Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human, if they come out; addiction fuel Destiny 2; home-invading suspense title Hello Neighbour; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the whole Nintendo Switch thing; the odd, creepy platforming of Little Nightmares; Mass Effect Andromeda, the latest in my favourite game franchise; the co-op ship-running duo of Sea of Thieves and Star Trek Bridge Crew; Fullbright Games’ space station exploration game Tacoma (and Arkane’s horror answer to it, Prey); Dontnod’s Victorian England vampire RPG Vampyr; and the very strange-looking, animal-filled What Remains of Edith Finch.