Rounding up any sort of ‘best of’ list is notoriously hard. Unremittingly shitty as 2016 has been on the political level, it’s been a pretty great year for gaming, making this list even harder than usual. But in a strange way, it’s a sort of worthwhile process, something all of us should think about – whether we’ve been asked to for an article or not. Reflecting on the year not only gives us a chance to revisit our favourite games, but it can also be a revealing experience. I knew that I had a soft spot for narrative-driven games, but I didn’t expect that every single one of my favourites this year (and honorable mentions) would be single-player, or that almost all of them would be heavily story-focused.
It’s a reminder that sometimes our tastes are narrower than we think, that we can get a bit set in our ways if we’re not careful. So I’ll be making an effort to expand my horizons in 2017, to stray away from story and to play a bit better with others, and hopefully this time next year I’ll have a list that’s just a little more diverse.
The Last Guardian
A very strong late entry here, and one that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. I hadn’t played Ico or Shadow of the Colossus until the week before The Last Guardian’s release, and had found them both to be ambitious, but too flawed to truly connect with. It was a surprised, then, that The Last Guardian totally bowled me over. I played the entire game over a weekend, resenting all the time I didn’t have my PS4 controller in my hands, and was a weepy mess by the game’s triumphant end. Yes, the camera is occasionally annoying; yes, performance on the regular PS4 can drop occasionally; yes, Trico is as irritating as he is utterly fascinating; but for its beautiful world, brilliant platforming, and ability to make me connect with an NPC like I never have before, The Last Guardian is one of a kind. We all know that games are art, but this is one of the games that really proves the point.
Limbo was a neat puzzle-platformer that couldn’t quite live up to its own promise, and the unforgettable opening sequence set a bar that the remainder could never quite reach. Clearly, developer Playdead learnt their lesson, because Inside starts strong and consistently ramps up to its mind-boggling finale. Yes, you’ll solve puzzles. Yes, you’ll navigate the world. Yes, you’ll encounter enemies. But those won’t be the moments that stick with you from Inside. Those will be the first moment you realised you could control the mindless drones, the first moment you encountered the creature underwater, and above all, the moment you realised just what the game’s closing moments wanted you to do. Inside is opaque and complex and open-ended and there’s nothing else quite like it.
I couldn’t possibly have predicted that Anarcute would end up on this list. I hadn’t even heard of the game before playing it. I nearly didn’t even bother – it didn’t look like much more than a quick little diversion from serious, proper games. But somehow, against all the odds, it was one of the first games I knew for sure had made the cut. You control a rampaging gang of adorable animals, running riot in cities across the globe. Across each level you build up your mob, unlocking new powers and species as you do so, all in the name of overthrowing a cutesy totalitarian state. Is it moving? No. Profound? Hardly. Does it have anything important to say about modern authoritarianism? Not that I noticed. But it is so bloody fun that it doesn’t need to. No other game this year has filled me with such pure joy, made me smile so hard, or served so well as an antidote to the utter misery of 2016.
Clocking in at 42 hours, XCOM 2 is so far the game I’ve devoted the most hours to this year, and one I suspect I’ll be returning to in 2017. It pulled off the impossible by improving on XCOM: Enemy Unknown in almost every way, from the new ambush mechanics and enemy types to the revamped skill trees and more original plot. It suffers from the same slightly warped difficulty curve, meaning competent players will probably coast through the endgame, but otherwise it’s pretty hard to find fault here. There aren’t many 40-hour games I’m willing to set time aside for these days, but XCOM 2 was one of the few where it was never really in doubt.
This year’s favorite indie darling won praise in most corners for its sharp writing and storytelling, and sure, they’re pretty good. Great, even. But they’re not what make Firewatch special – for that, you have Wyoming to thank. The state’s Shoshone National Forest is where Firewatch finds its setting, and its striking realization is surely 2016’s most beautiful virtual world. This isn’t the wet, muddy, disappointing wilderness of the real world, but a vivid, vibrant, postcard-take on the great outdoors, all exaggerated colors and sunlight rippling through the trees. And oh, those sunsets. I think I must have stopped to take in the view every single time I spotted the sun hanging low in the sky, bathing the world in a breathtaking orange glow. No other game this year was so easy on the eyes, or felt quite so much like a world you’d want to get lost in.
Inventive gameplay and brilliant art design made SUPERHOT an easy win, and the weirdly oppressive cyberpunk campaign certainly didn’t hurt. It utterly grabbed me, had me enthralled, right up until it ended – after just two hours. I wanted more, and repetitive challenge modes weren’t quite enough to keep me coming back.
The magnificent, moving campaign almost earned Titanfall 2 a spot on the main list, and it was undoubtedly one of the year’s best. Sadly, the multiplayer let me down, and felt too much like a step back from the innovations of the original and towards more familiar Call of Duty territory. It’s still brilliant, but not quite best-in-show.
Batman: Arkham Knight
30+ hours in (and not quite finished yet), Arkham Knight looks likely to be Rocksteady’s best. The writing is top-notch, the Batmobile is brilliant fun, and somehow, against all the odds, they found something new to do with the Joker that actually works. Jared Leto, take note.
As a lifelong xenomorph obsessive, I honestly didn’t think anything Alien could really scare me anymore. I was wrong. No game has ever – ever – scared me this much, leaving me genuinely frozen in fear, hands shaking, watching death walk towards me.
The Last of Us
We all know why The Last of Us is great. It’s cinematic, moving, powerful, etc. etc. Sure, I could have done with a bit less emphasis on the gunplay, and the story hit some familiar tropes very hard, but it’s all worth it for those moments of quiet conversation in a tragic, deserted world.