My Top 21 Games of 2016 or all the stuff I "finished" last year


#1

2017 has been a phenomenal year for game releases, but 2016 was no slouch either. I wrote some stuff about the games I played last year but didn’t really end up sharing it with people. I was going through some real big problems then that I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to blast this out.

But hey, those personal dark days are over, and it’s just fun for me to look back at this list! Also, I wrote way too much for this to not be read by others even though I doubt I can keep anyone’s attention with how long-winded I got in these write-ups.

Anyway, starting off with the my “least favorite” and counting down to my 2016 GOTY. I say “least favorite” because I enjoyed all these games to some extent and that there isn’t really an outright bad game on the list.

21. Asemblance

There’s one thing this tightly confined walking simulator does perfectly, and that’s establish a mounting sense of dread built on the theme of obsession.

The setup is a familiar one - you wake up in a seemingly abandoned small research/testing facility without your memories and with only a disembodied AI guiding you to reach an understanding of your current situation. You do so by inhabiting a handful of fragments of your past made corporeal by the technology you were researching (a holodeck, basically) before something went horribly wrong. The limitations of this technology have you only navigating cramped spaces within those memories, but you only need to hone in on one or two details that stand out through visual or audio cues to piece together a narrative and make progress.

The AI eases you into your journey of self-discovery. Your first memory is of a beaten path through lush green trees, warm light passing through the leaves, lilting music fading in and out, and a bold, blue butterfly resting on a rock. You’re drawn to it, this fragile, beautiful thing. It’s arresting. You look closer. You’re somewhere else.

The way Asemblance advances is very true to how reflecting on memories is a form of time/space travel. It’s jarring, but there is a human logic to stringing moments separated by days and miles together via one striking image or sound. And from that moment of serenity outside, you’re on a downward spiral to ever-more dark, constricting spaces in your office and your apartment, finding threads naturally that let you weave the tragedy of this story in your mind. Recordings of experiments going awry, frantic voice messages pleading you to go home, lights flickering down the hallway to your bedroom, a photo of a child tucked away in a drawer, you know where this is going.

The difficulty of confronting the sins of the past is a subject worth tackling on its own, but the developers seem to think otherwise. There are multiple endings to the game, each one leading to another. Attempting to reach the last two takes a giant leap from the organic progression you’ve been making, requiring obtuse actions and pixel hunting. The final conclusion was tied to an ARG that demanded the community to work together to get to it.

I never got to play PT, but I’m probably not wrong in saying Asemblance was heavily inspired by it, recreating that experience, warts and all. It broke the mood for me. I was immediately put off by the sidelining of the strong emotional hook for the meta game, an aspect in gaming and geek culture at large that I can respect but have zero interest in engaging with.

I can see the thematic layer of obsession being realized through the player base spending days to crack the game wide open, but seeing how the “white shift” plays out and knowing that this is a “pilot” episode for a planned series, I think I know exactly where the devs are more interested in taking this story.


#2

20. Abzu

I’m not a fan of how most video game talk on message boards trade in hyperbole. Everything is either a life-changing experience or garbage made by incompetent and/or lazy devs. Tell me to stop thinking about games the second I become a cynic about them, especially with indie games. That’s why I’ve taken some time to reflect on the gut reactions I had when I finished Abzu, and why I won’t be reductive, call it “underwater Journey” and move on to the next game.

To be fair, Giant Squid Studios lifts a lot from thatgamecompany’s magnum opus, from its underlying aesthetic to its narrative structure. No surprise there given the former was founded by three of the guiding artistic forces of the latter studio. It would be a disservice to not mention how beautiful Abzu is, in its visuals and its music. It does not, however, have the playful heart that powered Journey to reach the heights that game accomplished, try as Abzu might to emulate the story beats of Journey and even of Flower in a fashion that unfortunately comes off as calculated.

What makes it different, and what it should have leaned more on, is its contemplative nature. You can sit on faded shark statues for no other purpose than to observe, in repose, the various species of aquatic life. The very act of swimming in the ocean creates a greater drive for exploration that elicits fear and wonder in possibilities.

And yet a little over halfway through the game, it’s dead set on pushing you through one set piece after the other, which are all remarkable on a technical level, but betrays Abzu’s defining quality. The climax for me was discovering what the ruins had in store since you had time to just soak it all in, not the final rush that believed its “triumph” was self-evident in its overwhelming momentum clinging on a simulacrum.


#3

19. Bound

There hasn’t been a virtual space so abstract that feels so alive since Proteus. Like that island exploration game, Bound’s modern art world moves to its own weird music.

Off in the distance, the terrain roils under the heat of a strange sun. Its radiance casts the masked princess’ silhouette against pulsating walls as she pirouettes, that sleek, feathered alien headpiece jutting out as this surrealistic exclamation point. The ground heaves underneath the grace of her footsteps. Upon traversing gravity-defying platforms without a care for the horizon, paper airplanes swarm her form. A ribbon manifests around her, slicing through the horde in an elegant dance. And then she’s gliding, exhilarated in her momentary freedom from the monsters of her memories.

And that’s where Bound stumbles. The intro, the interludes, and the ending provide glimpses of the reality of the situation. There is something haunting, something personal that so deeply affects the player character to drive her to come back to the place she once thought as home. Yet for all the progress she makes in facing those fears, the game doesn’t take the one final courageous step to reveal a specific source of pain that would have anchored the story. For a narrative that establishes trauma as the foundation for nightmarish worlds to be overcome, just gesturing at the core problem and leaving players to work under the hazy cloud of “daddy issues” makes the story, and the whole experience, weightless.


#4

18. Virginia

I long for the day when a game like Virginia with its jump cuts and female POC protagonists and heavy symbolism isn’t immediately a standout because of its choice of storytelling. We need more games like this that push boundaries and expand audiences’ minds as to what games can be and what they can be about. Whether it’s a problem of mere existence or exposure, it needs to be addressed.

One big reason as to why that should happen is because stopping with Virginia means settling for overladen imagery, music that’s too grand for its own good, and a strict adherence to a narrative device that turns simple human interactions into stiff, robotic approximations. Let ambition in creative aspirations run free, for sure, but there is a virtue to strive for in reining in the execution. The “indie” label for story-driven games is usually and unfairly associated with pretension, but I wouldn’t disagree with anyone that slaps it on Virginia with some of its heavy-handed metaphors.

I would disagree with anyone that says it would be better as a short film, even if it were to retain its first-person perspective in that transition. Video games uniquely let you inhabit the role of a character in a predefined world with a predefined journey. I wouldn’t have had those small but powerful mental breaks when I had to put on lipstick, rebuff the advances of a drunk dude by showing a ring on my finger, and receive an ocular pat down inside an elevator crowded with men if Virginia were a movie or a TV show where there’s a more immediate understanding that you’re merely watching.


#5

17. The Last Guardian

Games that resist the player through deliberate design I can respect even when I don’t enjoy them. Controlling Ico, Wander, and Agro felt true to the experiences their games aimed to convey. Precision was never the point. In The Last Guardian, climactic moments can so easily fall apart because of the finicky controls and the sluggish camera. Ueda and co. never relied on neatly choreographed interactive slow-motion set pieces before. Reaching a fail state in ICO and Shadow of the Colossus wasn’t burdened by jarring checkpointing right in the middle of big events. When you miss a leap of faith in The Last Guardian because you jumped from the wrong angle or mistimed your button press, plunge to your death as the platform is triggered to collapse for the game to move forward, and then restart in the middle of the scripted sequence, all tension is lost. The facade crumbles, revealing the gameyness of it all.

The artistry in presenting the formation of the bond between the boy and the beast is undeniable. I just couldn’t keep myself from disengaging whenever there was an obviously “emotional” scene playing out. I had a sharper reaction to the tragedy that befell Agro a decade ago than to any of the numerous blows Trico suffered in my 13-hour-long playthrough. I know I am in the minority on this, and I envy all of you who cried over the course of caring for this catdogbird. I’ve come to expect to shed tears when playing games focused on drama. This year has been a disappointment in that aspect.

But yes, Trico is indeed a magnificent catdogbird. His displays of preternatural power, keen animal instinct, and lithe locomotion inspired the awe that I had to remember was the propellant to my exaltation of Team ICO’s works. Bounding across ancient architecture atop her head is this incomparable thrill of helplessness. Trico knows exactly what needs to be done, and you’re just this vulnerable, bumbling, flailing mess of limbs and strained pleas. It’s this role reversal of the player as the one being escorted in this mission that resonates with me the most and why I had an easier time pumping my fists at the Last Guardian’s glorious feats of rescue than letting my heart give in to the violent melodrama.


#6

16. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Everything I’ve read and heard surrounding the release of this game is awful. From the never-ending PR nightmares that were “augment your pre-order”, “mechanical apartheid”, and “augs lives matter” to the rocky development cycle riddled with rumors of publisher meddling that supposedly resulted in the last-minute tacking on of microtransactions, invasive data collection, and the chopped up plot, it’s bad. I wouldn’t be taking so much stock in these problems if the game didn’t reflect them in such a glaring manner.

Plenty of more keyed-in writers have tackled the tone-deaf approach to storytelling before the game even came out. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided validates those criticisms by not only fence-sitting on the very real issue of prejudice its creators so strongly believed they were handling seriously, but also by doing nothing interesting via interaction that has a tangible effect on the player. It’s really hard to feel oppression when you’re a badass cyborg that can kill, sneak, or even hormonally influence your way through any obstacle.

Okay so there is one thing of note that is successful in depicting systemic segregation. When you need to fast travel to another point in the central hub, the objective marker always points you to the furthest panel in all of the train stations. I never questioned it and dutifully followed the waypoint. I forget why, but I decided one time to check a panel that’s closer to the stairs, and was mildly surprised it worked all the same. What jarred me to realization was that the loading animation differed from the single one that played out when you boarded the train from the far panel.

Instead of the usual group of tired-looking citizens with cybernetic prostheses keeping to themselves, Adam Jensen stood out in that crowded car of “naturals”, with a little girl looking straight at him, the mother bringing her in closer while giving him the side-eye.

It’s this small thing, the compelling sidequests that are more fleshed out than the main plot, the bits and pieces of dialogue that hint at an odd sense of humor within Jensen’s black trenchcoated robot heart, the depths of Prague that you can plumb, and the wild, game-changing yet totally plausible theory of the Jensen you’re playing as is a clone that keep Deus Ex: Mankind Divided from simply being a mechanically better sequel to Human Revolution.


#7

15. Salt and Sanctuary

My single-minded obsession for the Soulsborne games has saved me from suffering through the clones many others have deemed unworthy of being even mentioned in the same sentence as From Software’s pentalogy of gaming masterworks. It was only when Ska Studios’ 2D take received praise that I decided to give a “Soulslike” a chance.

Salt and Sanctuary is singular in its success at sussing out the essence of Souls, if not in world-building, but at least in “feel”. Mind you that the former element is the crucial complement to the latter, making Souls Souls. I could map out the grand cosmology of the Dark Souls trilogy and even draw thematic lines to Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about the lore behind the fog-filled alkaline island of S&S.

It’s a compromised achievement, but what an achievement it is nevertheless. Heft is key to making combat consequential in Souls. In Salt and Sanctuary, claymores (or should i say kureimoas) cleave bodies, hammers crush heads, pistols blast fire on faces, and successful ripostes end in explosions of blood, gold, and salt. Accomplishing all this after removing depth is remarkable.

This weightiness doesn’t burden the movement, which is all the more emphasized in the flattened world where vertical traversal is integral. It’s slow going in the beginning, but its Metroidvaniness will have the player zipping about the intricately interconnected levels. It distinguishes the game from its biggest inspiration, and it just feels good to wall jump and air dash. It also led to most of my deaths with the many long falls and dissipating platforms that expand every area. It’s a strange reproduction of the risk/reward tension of progression in Souls, but what’s a Souls experience without frustration borne out of a lack of patience?


#8

14. Dishonored 2

The danger to framing a 20-hour game with systems-driven, open-ended missions first and foremost through the lens of stealth is that player exploration can be so easily discouraged. You find one successful method of sneaking past patrols and hazards, and you stick with it for the entire playthrough. You try to travel the most straightforward line to your objective so you reduce the risk of getting spotted going somewhere unnecessary, and that in itself can be a trying task. Having a detailed and comprehensive rundown of your performance after every assignment, tallying the times you get spotted and the people you killed, can even reinforce this constrained approach.

At its best, Dishonored 2 stokes a desire for discovery through imaginative level design that demands active player engagement. The Clockwork Mansion and A Crack in the Slab exemplify this virtue as the two standout missions in the meaty campaign. I just had to pull the levers that unfolded Kirin Jindosh’s puzzle box estate. I just had to cover every inch of Ariamis Stilton’s manor to see how time affects its various states. And even in the merely great missions, you’re presented with objectives that have you weaving your way throughout a good chunk of the level. Going down this or that route always pays off, too, in loot, in lore, or both.

This game and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided occupy the same space in my head for obvious reasons, so I can’t help but compare the two. With no standout main quests in Deus Ex, it makes enough sense for me to rank Arkane Studios’s sequel to its minor 7th gen hit above Eidos Montreal’s. Maybe it would have gotten higher if it also didn’t share the same weakness in delivering a more impactful overarching story.


#9

13. Firewatch

Having listened to literally all of Idle Thumbs, I understand why Firewatch is structured the way it is. The creative heads of Campo Santo have talked at length in their awful, awesome podcast about how much they hate conventional video game narratives go and how these predictably get convoluted and out of touch. Hence, the anti-climax that is Firewatch. That in itself would have been laudable, if only Fullbright didn’t already do it and did it better in 2013 with Gone Home (god i miss gaynor on thumbs).

Firewatch tells a very personal tale with the trappings of a thriller. It does a really good job building up paranoia, so much so that it can be very easy to lose sight of the emotional grounding, your mind taking on terrible flights of fancy before being abruptly brought back down to earth, seemingly nosediving into a confusing wreck. You can trace the trajectory of the game’s lofty goal of rejecting tradition, which is commendable, but you feel like ejecting instead to escape into the heady space of sci-fi scheming.

Yet it somehow sticks the landing! There are plenty of terrible ending sequences that dampen great video game experiences, but Firewatch is a rare example of the finale actually salvaging the story. I never wanted so much for Henry to find some semblance of satisfaction on his sabbatical in the lushly hypnotic Shoshone National Forest and in his dealings with Delilah than in that last run back to a fire lookout. I knew from the start that he wouldn’t, but it was real and genuine and good.


#10

12. Oxenfree

I had heard things get weird in Night School Studio’s debut, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so unsettling. I’ve played the Chzo Mythos and Lone Survivor, so it’s not like experiencing fear in 2D is an unfamiliar feeling. It’s just that Oxenfree’s pastel character palette, zoomed out camera, bouncing synths, and rapid-fire teen banter lulled me into thinking it was going to be more supernatural Scooby Doo hijinks than Life is Strange Episode 5 level of bonkers.

In this 4-6 hour mystery adventure, you’re invariably stumbling into a scene of interdimensional mischief. Time loops torture blue-haired protagonist Alex when the phantoms of Edwards Island aren’t mocking her life choices via friend possession. Simply fiddling with the radio, your main means of interaction, teases you with broadcast bits of coded wartime correspondence and chilling confessions of the long since forgotten. Your only respite is the low echoing thrum of scntfc’s score in the silence between conversations.

Of course, having one’s fragile concepts of time and space toyed with would lead to some serious self-reflection. In the hyper-sensitive reality of teenagers coming to grips with growing up, Oxenfree explores each cast member’s identity in relatable ways, whichever lens the player chooses to see them through. Eager, honest, compromising Alex is just as sympathetic as distant, sarcastic, and unforgiving Alex.

Oxenfree’s ghost story framework stands on a couple of shaky cliches (and a bit of patchy voice work), but it balances its pervading discord with some playfulness in such an oddly displacing state that it can surprise and still be authentic.


#11

11. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

While I mostly enjoyed my time with the first three games, I wouldn’t say that I’m a big Uncharted fan. The set pieces are amazing, but fucking them up once can suck all the thrill out of them. Movement, puzzle-solving, and combat are serviceable. Their stories feel like Naughty Dog could have done a little more to make them matter. I can say with certainty that I’m a big fan of Uncharted 4, and it has made me appreciate having played the series leading up to Nathan Drake’s final adventure.

A Thief’s End puts the spotlight on what kept me going through the previous titles, the core cast that I grew to love, and reveals truths about them that they can’t wisecrack their way out of. I never imagined I’d identify with Nathan Drake, but there I was, sympathizing with this ruggedly handsome swashbuckling treasure hunter when Elena caught him zoning out of their dinner conversation to dream of going on another adventure. All the lying to get his escape from the hell that is a normal home life under the pretense of a noble cause is Drake at his most unlikable, and it’s also him at his most human.

Also, I can’t be the only person posting on video game message boards that is still blown away by how goddamn gorgeous this game is. So many of us seem to be spoiled when it comes to realistic video game visuals that I have to remind everyone of the technical wizardry Naughty Dog puts on display here. While other people get tired of scaling rock faces, I take that down time to soak in the scenery.

The previous games all have points where they let the player breathe. Uncharted 4 does it with the confidence that its audience would enjoy the longer, quieter stretches where the characters play off each other just as much as the car chases, gunfights, and explosions. In fact, those muted moments also made me look forward to the much improved action/stealth combat sections, which I thought I’d grown tired of by the end of the third game. Thanks in no small part to creative director Neil Druckmann (who also helmed one of my favorite games of all time), I’ve come to a deep admiration of a franchise I had written off as a one-note, one-hit graphical showcase.


#12

10. Hyper Light Drifter

For a relatively short game, Hyper Light Drifter had to grow on me. It didn’t have the initial advantage of hooking me through its Link to the Past-Diablo inspirations since I’ve never played those games. I had no idea about the creator’s heart condition which could have moved me faster into emotionally investing into the narrative. Its intentionally opaque storytelling pushed me into piecing it together on my own. The most immediately inviting game it was not.

It wasn’t really even until after I had already finished the game and went back to find some of the hidden weapons and optional bosses that I found myself in a meditative mindset while playing. Maybe it was triggered by that ending scene where the Drifter, fighting ever forward in the face of this consuming black disease, sees a calming blue peace over the land, hand clutching heart one final time.

It’s not a totally different experience from my replays of Salt and Sanctuary, but unlike S&S with its rather drab aesthetic and that one repeating Lateralus-era Tool riff as overworld OST, Hyper Light Drifter isn’t solely reliant on “game feel”. By the by, it excels there too, sword and gunplay synergizing in step with the brisk movement, the Drifter negotiating space on what always ends up a crowded, corpse-ridden dance floor, whether it’s accomplished by force or elegance. It’s Hotline Miami-esque, even, as you double back through conquered screens of pixelated, mutilated bodies.

Hyper Light Drifter is evocative. From its picture balloon “dialogue” and its melancholic Disasterpeace music to its simple yet tantalizing secret signposting and titanic archaeological landmarks, the game stirs a longing for something that’s always out of reach. Playing the ill-fated hero once more, knowing what ruin surrounds the Drifter befalls him too no matter his actions, just as the enigmatic, cataclysmic visions foretold, recasts the whole journey as rumination instead of resistance. And that’s just rad.


#13

9. Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon is taxing.

Not a single action taken is without cost, whether it’s in the game’s virtual Victorian Gothic/Lovecraftian world or in real life where time is a luxury. Recruiting adventurers takes up limited roster space. Sending them to expeditions is spending gold for provisions or risking survival with just the gear on their persons. Entering this room off to the side of your destination but which the map clearly marks for loot, which you need to develop your town-as-home-base and your contracted mercenaries for further sorties, means battling a random assortment of eldritch abominations, each one eager to claw away at flesh and mind. Igniting a torch now to illuminate claustrophobic hallways and spot traps means one less light later on your long dungeon crawl, increasing the likelihood of ambushes and the pace of building stress as the darkness encroaches.

And 99% of the time, you don’t want to build stress. Hitting the first limit of 100 stress points on a character pushes them to temporarily acquire a negative or positive quirk, with things going bad more often than not.
Either way, this development is almost always momentous, collapsing the best laid plans in a mess of insults and refusals of cooperation, or catapulting your ostensibly doomed party to victory.

Hitting the second limit of 200 stress points, however, leads only to despair, the afflicted suffering a heart attack that reduces health to 1 point or just kills them outright. It’s not unlikely for this to set off a chain reaction of increased stress throughout the group, as who wouldn’t suffer a jolt of anxiety seeing an ally die next to them, potentially resulting in more heart attacks and death.

I witnessed my fair share of catastrophes in my 40+ hour playthrough of Darkest Dungeon, most of which I can point to poor preparation or rash decision-making. Deferring rest by bonfire in the middle of a dungeon to maximize ground covered and the healing the process brings is one such mistake. Going for the big crit with a leper-warrior on an elusive spider instead of debuffing to improve hit chance is another.

You just realize soon enough that success doesn’t come without sacrifice, and attachment to particular “heroes” is an anchor. That plague doctor with “quick reflexes” can shut down backline stress-inducers in the warrens by the very first turn, but her infatuation for a prostitute in the brothel and her sickly frame is draining you of gold quicker than you’d like. Midway through the game, her experience in questing marks her psyche with a list of aberrations in red; she’s afraid of the dark, she’s obsessed with unholy artifacts, she needs to eat more to stave off hungry when stressed. On the lead-up to going on a boss quest you’ve planned for in real-time hours, she decides to stay one more in-game week in her lover’s arms so you can’t bring her along. The next time she shows up for work, you’re sending her off with three fresh faces and just enough food to last a straight-up loot run. You’re trying to save up gold, so they go without torches. She comes back alone, the other three lost to untreated wounds and poison, and she brings with her riches aplenty and a shattered mind. You take the treasures and relieve her of her duties. She can take care of herself.

I thought I grew numb to it when I rolled into the second year of my campaign. Access to the Darkest Dungeon, the ultimate destination, was in sight. I was just cleaning up the last couple of Champion-level boss dungeons. Dismas, a veteran highwayman, was one of the two hired mercs that was with me from the very start. He had fallen out of favor from my usual party line-up soon after the beginner areas, his skills not necessarily syncing well with more formidable members. But I had kept him anyway in the corner, bringing him out every now and then for clean-up in quick and easy missions, earning levels and getting upgrades when I had the spare money. His penchant for a good drink was easy enough to manage at the bar, too.

The depth in class combinations for combat in Darkest Dungeon is too much for me to dive into now, but needless to say, we found a good niche for good ol’ Dismas to show his agile ferocity in the harder dungeons. I like to think he wanted to prove himself as more than a hanger-on when his ambient word bubble requested one more assignment into the Ruins. So I brought him in to face the Gibbering Prophet.

He went to work with his knife and pistol.

With literally two turns away from putting down that bile-spewing madman, Dismas only needed to be healed one point of health to stave off Death’s Door from the blight that poisoned his veins. Morphew, my occultist healer, failed his spell spectacularly, recovering zero HP. He and Dismas died the very next turn, just before the Gibbering Prophet succumbed to the bleeding Dismas inflicted.

I faced the Heart of Darkness and overcame it, sacrificing six more of my soldiers in that climactic final battle. Darkest Dungeon is taxing.


#14

8. DOOM

Back in the mid 90’s, my brothers and I used to stay over at our dad’s condo/personal office when he was busy with work but still wanted to have us around. He had a desktop computer there apart from his work laptop, and we were allowed to play whatever games were on it. For most of those days, we would just play Solitaire and Minesweeper.

When my ultra conservative Christian parents weren’t around though, we’d load up Doom. It was scary for us 6, 7, and 8-year old boys; the way those green-haired, gun-toting zombie soldiers and spiked, red-eyed imps would appear as doors opened and get right up to our faces before murdering us, and that without warning, our dad would walk in on us playing this hellish thing Satan handcrafted to possess naive children.

The only way my brothers and I managed to make any sort of progress without shitting ourselves was by typing in that magic combination of letters: iddqd. That incantation that gave angry white dude at the bottom center of the screen glowing yellow eyes made us believe that we could be gods.

It took another 20+ years for that intoxicating feeling of forbidden power to resurface with a first-person shooter, and of course it had to be DOOM.

It’s not fair, really, how you, as the Doomguy aka “the Doomslayer”, can run through every enemy with an almost reckless fury. These demons from literal Hell take all the time to set up ambushes via portals (read: monster closets) and swarm you with their claws and teeth and fireballs and infernal energy beams, and you just get right up in their face to rip and tear them in half with your bare hands, stealing their life essence to refuel your engine of destruction. Sometimes, you use their own deadly appendages on them. Other times, you use a chainsaw to do the ripping and tearing. They burst into a fountain of bullets and rockets and plasma energy and all sorts of goodies. Whichever way, you keep barrelling through. You’re unstoppable.

The only thing that stopped me was the desire to find every secret. It’s devilish how they’re hidden in plain sight; the markers in stark relief on the map, pointing exactly where they are. These levels are labyrinthine, too. It’s a gift uncovering them all, as you only grow even stronger with every upgrade point and early weapon discovery. I’m not supposed to have this laser cannon right now! I’m getting away with something again.

It could have been mean-spirited, too, all this ultraviolence. But no, the absurdity of reverential demonic speech and imagery mixed with straight-faced corporate spirit and the jetpack djent metal soundtrack only leave me with a shit-eating grin on my face.

DOOM is maniacally laughing with childish glee as you lay waste to everything. DOOM is power fantasy.


#15

7. Inside

Given the massive amounts of praise Limbo got when it came out, I was wary of the same hype that surrounded Inside upon its release. Playdead’s 2010 debut was a moody yet ultimately monotonous pantomime. What I gleaned from the scant pre-release coverage was all discreet excitement, critics pushing people to just play the game knowing as little as possible. The only “concrete” positive that was proffered was “it’s better than Limbo”. It wasn’t exactly the most convincing argument for me, as I’ve played so many games that are better than Limbo that I don’t even consider to be all that good.

So I didn’t touch Inside, and shut myself off of any talk about it. Not until a friend who got it, beat it, and joined the ranks of secretive believers had me play through the whole thing in one sitting with his copy. Inside is, in fact, better than Limbo, and it is, in fact, a good game.

Limbo is an admirable, ethereal sketch from a startup indie studio, a prototype for pondering the afterlife. Inside is a robust, well-oiled machine that executes a pulverizing dystopic vision of industrial slavery with ruthless efficiency. You can almost see the millions of dollars and the years spent on every frame of animation, every shadow cast in stark light, and every increasingly loud boom that reverberates through your hands and into your skull on every discrete window into this post-apocalyptic world.

It’s sinister how it deliberately drills into your brain the mundane mechanics to solve puzzles, only to twist them ever so slightly right as their rules have embedded in your head. And then, for the last cruel laugh, when you think you’ve got the game all under control, Inside blows your mind with a climax that is forever seared into my soul.


#16

6. Titanfall 2

I find it almost impossible to stay still in meatspace. I have this nervous energy in me that requires me to always be moving around. I’m always pacing or shuffling my feet. My fingers are either cracking all the joints in my hands or chipping away at my nails if they’re not drumming on a surface or scratching at a self-made itch. I’m adjusting my posture constantly, whether I’m standing up or sitting down. Titanfall 2 taps into this manic part of me so fully that it has led to many a hilariously embarrassing death in the campaign and in the multiplayer.

You just can’t be not moving forward in this game. In every level and every encounter, you advance or you die. What makes Titanfall 2’s focus on this design principle refreshing instead of tiresome is the various articulations on “moving forward” that each distinct chapter in the campaign explores. First, you’re learning the basics of traversal by wall running, double jumping, and mantling in static environments. Then you’re understanding the difference in movement as a pilot and while riding a Titan. Next, you’re having to apply that combined knowledge through an ever-shifting land factory where advancing means going up, down, or sideways. And all of a sudden you’re fucking traveling back and forth through time and so on and so forth.

I’ve never enjoyed first-person platforming, not in the Half-Life series where it’s just part of the experience nor in Mirror’s Edge where it’s the whole point. Titanfall 2’s story mode has legitimately awesome first-person platforming. It sounds like a small thing, but the game instantly respawning you at a convenient checkpoint when you mess up a platforming section also avoids that major problem I have with other games that put such an importance in precision jumps. The game just pulls it off effortlessly with how smooth it is to string wall runs, leaps, and floor slides to superman punching an enemy soldier out.

That way of seamlessly transitioning from traversal to up-close combat and vice versa is such a unique thrill. In the campaign alone, there are so many handcrafted moments of physical triumph achieved through this dynamic. It’s kind of wild how it keeps ramping up and climaxes in one of the best action sequences ever with the SEER kit, and I didn’t even play the original Titanfall!

And you’d think, removed from the authored funneling in the single player, the multiplayer wouldn’t compare. But nope, any instance and combination of bounding over, through, and in between the sides of buildings, headshotting one player, grenading another, zipping to an enemy Titan with your grappling hook, removing its battery and leaving it vulnerable, calling in your own to Titan to crush NPC grunts on impact, and executing the enemy Titan by ramming your truck-sized energy rifle into its cockpit and firing away can just happen, and you know you’re the rawest motherfucker alive.


#17

5. Furi

“Precision beats power, and timing beats speed,” said Conor McGregor after he knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, the fastest finish in a title bout in UFC history, to then become the UFC Featherweight Champion.

No fights in Furi can end that quickly given the multi-staged design of every encounter, but what the world’s most famous Irish fighter said to sum up that record knockout of the most dominant champion of that division encapsulates not just the combat of Furi but the overall design philosophy of the game.

For the uninitiated, Furi is a hack-and-slash/shoot 'em up where you only battle bosses, linear walking and talking sequences filling the spaces between fights. That last bit is essential to the pacing. A 100% boss rush with no breathers would have been overwhelming for a first run through, especially with how relentless the action gets when the bouts break out. These walk-ups, aside from serving up some exposition and motivations, are also crucial to crescendo.

When you, The Rider AKA The Stranger, stride through each of the nine jailers’ domains, whether it’s the neon prison-within-a-prison of The Strap or the topsy-turvy new age zen garden of The Line, the tone is set with every step you take. You can push the left stick in any direction, but it’s a distraction, a concession to the indiscriminate desire of “player freedom”. I prefer the one button press that lets your sun-kissed, white-haired avatar of death move on his own and with a single-minded purpose, which only the man with the rabbit mask alludes to via cryptic monologue. The Voice, as bunny man is known, urges you to kill and consider while he warps from one carefully composed camera angle to another, both the angel and the devil on your shoulders.

For maximum impact, Furi’s original synthwave soundtrack starts anew on every level and seamlessly streams from scene to scene. It’s almost calming when a track begins an area. Then slowly but surely, it picks up momentum as you get closer to your destination, and you feel that rush rising, ready to carry you. By the time you’re about to set foot in a boss arena, the music has swept you up and is ready to burst. You inhale. You dive in.

Each track, with how it ebbs and flows to the rhythm of battle, getting tighter in melee combat and looser in bullet hell phases, isn’t just another layer to thicken the intoxicating atmosphere. It might as well be the driving force to every swing, every shot, and every hit you take. You know you’re doing well when it kicks up a notch. You know you’re fucking up when it slides backwards in tempo. And you know when shit is about to get real when it starts breaking down and revving up for overdrive. It’s about as dynamic a score can get.

The fighting itself is kinetic. You’re always learning new patterns as you shift in and out of parry-heavy swordplay and evasion-focused SHMUP sequences. It becomes increasingly complex how it tests your reflexes and recognition. Yet success comes down to the economy of your actions. You’re expected to weather screen-filling, life-draining flurries with a nigh-perfect execution of blocks and dashes. A chunky health bar you can refill with parries and three “lives” that regenerate after every phase allow for mistakes, but bosses also get their health back for that phase for every life you lose. It’s fair and can make for truly tense back-and-forths.

You do not, however, trade blows with stronger and faster foes and expect to come out victorious. You will always die before they do. No, you have to strike with precision and timing. You perfect parry in tune with the telltale twinkle of a blade about to fall. You launch counterattacks for critical damage. You let the Rider do what he was built to do - observe and assess in patience, and rain down swift and terrible judgement, unerring in conviction. And when the patterns map to your mind and your fingers prove dextrous, it all plays out like intricate choreography, as if every move had been planned, every action directed, and every conclusion decided well in advance. Because that’s what it looks like when you fight with precision and timing - predictable.


#18

4. Hitman

There are only two ways for any Hitman plan to pan out. You’re either the slickest mastermind assassin in the world, without a trace of your existence to be found anywhere close to your eliminated targets, or you’re a murderous Mr. Magoo, leaving in your wake piles of half-naked dudes with knives and screwdrivers lodged in their skulls. Whether you’re smirking and saying to yourself “I did that,” or you’re howling uncontrollably and exclaiming “I can’t believe I just did that,” it’s euphoric.

The only proper Hitman game I’ve played prior to this 2016 revelation is the very first one, Hitman: Codename 47. It’s rage-inducing. It hints at ingenious assassination methods through the promise of social stealth (read: disguises!), but its restrictive design forces you to take very specific steps in plenty of incredibly hostile environments, and making even just one wrong move often leads to a full-stop failure state.

The latest iteration of this niche series isn’t without such moments in a handful of situations, but the bigger picture shows a more free-wheeling approach to letting players tackle missions. Most importantly, Hitman 2016 understands how failure on the micro level can actually lead to interesting scenarios on their own. Instead of shutting you down the second you mistakenly walk into a restricted area with the wrong uniform or get seen dragging a body, the game diegetically gives you a stern warning to stop what you’re doing. In reality, it’s giving you precious time to let you think of an excuse or an escape route, as if it’s saying “show me what you got”.

So you show the game what’s what, which usually involves throwing a hammer at the face of some poor schmuck lucky enough to catch you doing something you shouldn’t be doing.

The force at which a blunt object smashes against an NPC’s head and the way the physics violently thrust bludgeoned bodies to whatever breaks their fall would be frightening if not for the game’s farcical tone. Your victims pleading for you to not ruin their good looks right before your chosen neutralizing implement collides with their craniums turns savagery into slapstick.

This levity is present throughout all 8 clockwork levels; in the ambient dialogue, in the tongue-in-cheek challenges, and in the ironic interactions the stone-faced, multi-talented Agent 47 has with his marks. There is no ambiguity here, especially when every hit is a 1%-er criminal scumbag with an over-inflated ego that deserves popping. Hitman celebrates schadenfreude.

You’ll want to explore the many ways you can cause comic mischief because of how the game teases you constantly with opportunities. Around every corner there’s a conversation to eavesdrop on that reveals an avenue for deadly hijinks. Pull off the elaborate setup, and you’re usually rewarded with an over-the-top kill and a bunch of mastery points that unlock even more fun toys to tinker with.

And of course you want to see how you can incorporate an explosive rubber ducky into your master plan. Just keep walking around the gorgeous and gigantic maps, and you’re bound to stumble upon a chance to literally throw a wrench into the interlocking gears of these mechanical dioramas.

And oh how many gears there are to find and screw around with in just one level. You can spend hours and hours just replaying Paris, the first proper destination, and still not see everything it has to offer. I’ve already hit the max “mastery level” for each map, and I’m still learning crazy little details from more observant and experimental players posting their findings.

Don’t get me wrong, you will develop a strong familiarity with the beautiful coastal town and villa of Sapienza, the crowded markets and bustling embassy of Marrakesh, and the high-tech hospital of Hokkaido. But trust me, there are whole clockwork worlds of assassination waiting for you in Hitman, and it has never been this fun or funny to get lost.


#19

3. Dark Souls III

It’s not at all controversial to say that Dark Souls III is the least inspired entry in the vaunted Soulsborne franchise. More referential than reverential, it is shameless in shoveling up icons from past games and shoving them into the player’s face. Gone is the subtlety in storytelling that seduced souls to Souls. In exchange, bombast. Because how else would you tell the story of the end of the world?

So Dark Souls III goes big and bold in every way. There has never been this many discrete areas that are as massive and interconnected in their sprawl. The Undead Settlement alone feels like three separate Demon’s Souls levels packed into one with a bevy of NPCs filling it out. The Cathedral of the Deep ranks up there with the best alongside 1-1 and The Painted World of Ariamis with its decayed Gothic architecture that reeks evil and how it keeps wrapping back around itself with savvy shortcut progression. Coming out of the darkness of the Catacombs of Carthus and into the moonlit vista of Irithyll of the Boreal Valley is one of the most breathtaking moments in franchise history.

Enemies are at their most freakish and intimidating. Lumbering Hollow Soldiers wielding greataxes leap with surprising agility. All manner of Lothric Knights can make quick work of you with their holy-buffed arsenal of spears, maces, and two-handed greatswords. Corvians look vulnerable on their own, until they scream a scream that rends the spirit, spring forth wings that envelop your vision, and claw at your flesh in a frenzy. And who can forget their first time seeing the Pus of Man burst from the body of a frayed Hollow, its black, voluminous serpent-shaped goo pulsating and lashing out with reckless abandon, its hatred for order apparent in its stark red eyes.

Even the NPC questlines are at their most circuitous. It’s never been something I’ve figured out on my own, pursuing the opaque sidequests in these games, so it’s not really a big deal for me here either. At least most of them follow through with climactic ends. What they lack in the personal drama of the more thematically resonant NPCs of old, they make up for memorable pomp and circumstance. I mean you gotta admit it was pretty badass to see Siegward walk in from behind you, speechifying with Storm Ruler in tow, ready to cut down Yhorm, a Lord of Cinder and his friend, to honor an oath.

Speaking of Lords of Cinder, Dark Souls III has got to have the most consistently good-to-great boss battles in all of games.

Iudex Gundyr is the best first test, his first phase checking your basic melee offense and defense capabilities in a duel with a humanoid opponent, and his second phase prepping you for the oversized monstrosities that remind you of the importance of camera positioning.

The Curse-rotted Greatwood is one of the finest examples of pure spectacle with its wide open arena, mooks that add to the chaos without being hindrances, glaring weakpoints that still take some skill and timing to hit, and a midpoint level change that took way by surprise on my initial run. How it ties into the current game’s lore and calls back to a dear friend from Dark Souls II are just gravy.

As for major story bosses, the Twin Princes is now one of my favorite fights. From the chilling intro cutscene where Lorian crawls out to protect his younger brother to Lothric reminding his elder brother of their Undead Curse with whispers to rise, it’s compellingly cinematic in the only way From Software knows how to portray.

But nothing else sums up Dark Souls III the best than the Abyss Watchers. The most fearsome and loyal followers of Artorias are now corrupted by the Abyss, killing each other to contain this darkness. You fight with and against them. They die and resurrect as one, fire erupting from their blade. The score is grand yet solemn. It’s an epic duel between ash and ember. It’s a shambling corpse powered by the past that needs putting down. Let it burn. It deserves to go up in glorious flames.


#20

2. The Witness

I’m not even going to bother trying to be fancy about what I think and feel about The Witness. It does the job on its own pretty well. Its solid watercolor visuals look Artistic. It has audio logs of quotes by renowned scientists, artists, and philosophers. Its puzzles work every level of your audio-visual pattern recognition capabilities. It’s a very smart game made by very smart people.

I love it for two reasons.

It’s one of the rare games that is flawless in synthesizing every element to deliver a focused and potent message. From its aesthetics to its gameplay, it constantly reinforces the power of perception and how it defines our ideas of truth and reality.

It also knows awe as a genuine emotion that can only truly come not just by discovering but by coming to an understanding of something on your own, and that this feeling in and of itself is so powerful that experiencing it is its own reward.

oh and yes secret third reason the witness also knows how fucking hard it is to be a frail human being filled with insecurities and irrational thoughts and feelings in the face of a cold, uncaring world, and that this strange, unpredictable humanity leads to monumental works and also madness