Hi, this is Julian. Ollie (aka Oliver ‘Road Rash’ Fox) didn’t write an intro, so I’ve hacked into this article and am defacing it with my lovewords. Ollie’s been a real solid guy this year. Even though we live in different countries, he still sends me a chest bump every morning by snail mail. As an editor, I’d also like to point out that Oliver sells bootleg copies of the following games out of the trunk of his Citroën Deux Chevaux, so the man can hardly be trusted to review them fairly. Enjoy.
If there’s one game that’s stuck around with me the longest, it’s Overwatch. Blizzard’s smartly designed online shooter is as sickly as it is compulsive. The characters are chirpy and colourful but underbaked, and the attempt to bring them to life as convivial, chatty individuals doesn’t quite work as it did in Team Fortress 2. But for all its clumsy writing, which can often feel like a cynical attempt to string together a franchise out of awkward catchphrases and inside jokes designed by committee, it’s a satisfying, compulsive and tightly competitive experience. I’ve probably sunk more time into it than anything else on this list, although ‘sunk’ is absolutely the correct word to use in this instance.
The Witness took over my household like nothing else. The meticulous design demands that you start from scratch, and slowly build up a uniquely personal understanding of the world around you. And you really have no choice. The game only shows you its central mechanic, drawing lines on panels, at the very start and leaves the rest – including the way those panels behave, the way they interact with the rest of the world, and even what constitutes a puzzle at all – up to you. It places you in a big open world, full of tantalisingly locked doors and enigmatic structures, but the real genius of The Witness is that it isn’t aloof or detached. You can feel the DNA of the creator in the puzzles, their pacing – once you begin to attune yourself to the visual language ahead of you, a sense of mischief reveals itself to you.. Most of the puzzles happen in tight sequences, building up on a central conceit, and it’s not uncommon for you to break through the mysteries of a puzzle, triumphant after days of thinking and reworking and note-taking and hypothesising on the London Underground – only for the next step in the chain to pull up a curtain on some greater complication, making you rethink every rule you’ve learned thus far. You apply the sum total of your knowledge to something, only to declare that it’s impossible, making you take a huge step back and swear at your screen. It’s the sense you get of the game knowing what it’s doing in these moments that elevates the experience. The game knows exactly when it’s throwing a spanner in the works. Purely through the abstract and mostly silent mechanics, creator Jonathan Blow is able to lean in and quietly whisper, “Fuck you, you’re not as clever as you think,” right into your ear-brains.
As an exercise in whether a game’s mechanics can be used to convey something greater, a preoccupation of creator Jonathan Blow, the game is a great success, even if this self-reflexiveness is sometimes employed extra to the experience, through a small handful of unlockable videos – mostly archive clips from old documentaries, with themes that chime agreeably with the concerns of the game. Monologues about learning a new language from scratch, or the power of intuition vs calculation in problem solving; questions of artistic intent in the strange new medium of videogames.
There was a spell of time where every game which sought to be seen as an ‘art game’ made itself about games, nodding to its own mechanics and playing around with its own artifice. The Witness is the most complete and rigorous attempt at that project, I think.
This was also a year for cool UIs in games, cool design flourishes underscoring the notion that presentation matters. Games that flew in the face of that stodgy old forum whine of “gameplay over graphics,” as if the only artistry to a game is in its competitive ruleset, the only reward existing as a mechanic, abstracted from content and meaning. And while plenty of games this year have been absolutely beautiful, SUPERHOT was the most memorable for me, taking an already compelling play loop and through sheer presentation making it ecstatic. From the simulated IRC channels making you hammer on your keyboard to unspool scripted scenes between adorably l33t hackers, to the post-round fanfare that has become as iconic as the game itself – the monotone chant of SUPER HOT SUPER SUPER HOT. In fact, the visual design of the game’s paratext was one of the year’s best surprises. Getting to explore your character’s computer desktop has been done before, but there was something very cool about SUPERHOT‘s fake operating system – which even included other games installed by your character, the most memorable of which is a lo-fi version of SUPERHOT itself.
Speaking of visuals being an important consideration in a visual art form, I feel like 2016 was finally the year where the ‘retro’ aesthetic fully embraced the low-fi polygonal style, at last tugging at the sentimentalities of people like me, people in their twenties who grew up with PlayStation and Nintendo 64. A small and tightly disciplined arena style affair that’s a bit too precise and a bit too difficult, the real star of Devil Daggers for me was the look and sound, perfectly evoking the kind of game you’d sneakily install on a school computer. Big crunchy polygonal ne’er do wells – all skulls and demons and tentacled beasties – scream across the play area as you shoot swords out your fingers at them through the filter of ’90s hellscape nostalgia.
No, wait, come back! Rocket League was released on Xbox One this year, so it basically counts, but I’ve also probably seen and played more of it than any other game this year. It’s football with cars and sophisticated physics. I have seen roomfuls of men with no interest in football transform into braying, apelike beasts over the course of an evening’s indoctrination into Rocket League, howling at the sight of a missed goal, throwing curses at their anonymous online opponents, and fist bumping in victory more than anyone would care to admit. Rocket League has the power to turn even the most aloof liberal artsy type into a sailor-mouthed football hooligan, and as someone who has never really understood the world’s most popular sport, Rocket League has taught me more about the things that drive people to football fanaticism than even working in a London pub during the World Cup.
So there it is. My top 5. No story-driven games this year besides SUPERHOT. Weird! Honourable mentions go to Abzu, Firewatch, Inside, and the most recent act of Kentucky Route Zero.
Looking at the word-count on the above, I wrote the most about The Witness. As I had the most to say about it, that surely means The Witness is my game of the year.
CONGRATULATIONS THE WITNESS.
CONGRATULATIONS JONATHAN BLOW, AUTEUR CREATOR OF THE WITNESS.
A CHRISTMAS BLESSING UPON YOU AND YOUR FINE GAME.