As December approaches like a runaway sled and we prepare to say our goodbyes to 2016, it’s natural to reflect on the year as a whole. Those reflections could easily take the form of laments but we’re keeping our focus firmly on the world of PC games, where we’ve identified ten trends that may not have defined 2016, but have certainly helped to shape it. We delve into Sorcery and synthwave, DOOM and Danganronpa, and much more besides.
To read through the entries you can use the arrows beneath or below the image at the top of each page, or using your arrow keys.
Drive gets the credit – or the blame – for this. Even in the midst of a seemingly inexhaustible, collective nostalgia for the ’80s that had already lasted more than the decade which spawned it, it took Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film to reintroduce most of us to the pleasures of brooding, neon-dripping synths and suggestive mid-tempo beats. Games have been flirting with the genre ever since – GTA V even had a radio station originally planned to be hosted by scene-legend Kavinsky – but it was 2016 that saw unprecedented levels of synergy, the aesthetic no doubt granted an extra layer of visibility by the year’s most famous title sequence in Stranger Things.
In the meantime, synthwave has been providing the soundtrack to all sorts of virtual journeys, from violent uprisings rocking pixelated post-communist dystopias in Mother Russia Bleeds, to hallucinatory road trips through glowing, shifting landscapes in Neon Drive. Even relatively low-profile releases like Blood Alloy: Reborn feature big-name collaborations with the likes Perturbator and Magic Sword, so it should come as no surprise when Furi kicks things up a notch by mobilising all of the major artists contributing to its soundtrack for a live show to celebrate the game’s release.
Gamebook adaptations 2.0
Choose your own adventure books are one of the more traditional forms of solo play that, while narrative-focused, adheres to rule-based structures to determine progress. They were videogames to play in your room before you could play videogames in your room. Yet, for all its influence on contemporary RPGs and adventures, the genre has been treated with kid gloves when it came to adapting it for digital platforms. Developers were content to deliver basic text transcriptions with little more than an assortment of visual bells and whistles to justify their existence. The first couple of hours with inkle’s Sorcery! don’t feel much different to what’s come before in terms of these adaptations. Then something magical happens.
Implausibly, the adaptation of Steve Jackson’s classic series, despite a blandly conventional start, unfolds with each successive iteration into a game that had our own John Walker proclaiming it “one of the finest RPGs ever made”. Linear paths and simplistic choice trees give way to real-time engagement and an array of environments and characters that dynamically react to your decisions, making a mockery of the format’s apparent limitations. Meanwhile, genre-specialist Tin Man Games has been taking notes: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain isn’t an unadulterated triumph like Sorcery!, but it makes a genuine attempt to innovate through turn-based, tactical battles and a range of unlockable character classes.
You may have missed: Legacy of Dorn: Herald of Oblivion is flawed, but provides another interesting glimpse at the evolution of the format.
Be on the lookout for: inkle’s next game.
Contenders for the CCG Crown
Efforts to dethrone the twin sovereigns of MOBA-land, League of Legends and DotA 2, have been so conclusively squashed in recent years that developers had to turn their attention elsewhere. One place to look is another massively popular genre and another indomitable king: card games. Industry behemoths CD Projekt and Bethesda have been carefully orchestrating their respective coups, undaunted by the looming demise of Hearthstone’s last prominent rival. Duel of Champions has been recently scrapped by Ubisoft but, let’s face it, Might & Magic, in terms of franchise recognisability, was never anywhere near the level of The Witcher or The Elder Scrolls.
While waiting for these challengers to emerge, several humbler – though no less intriguing – projects have been providing their own creative alternatives to Hearthstone’s tried and tested formula. Hex: Shards of Fate complements its traditional duels with an RPG-inspired campaign mode, Duelyst opens them up by incorporating complex spatial tactics, while Chronicles: Runescape Legends subverts them by shifting its focus on buffing your own character instead of chipping away at your opponent’s health. There’s definitely more to the collectible card game genre than the battle for supremacy about to rage at its upper echelons.
You may have missed: Faeria, or registering for the closed beta of Gwent: The Witcher Card Game.
Be on the lookout for: The Elder Scrolls: Legends, still set for a surprise launch, possibly before the year’s end.
The decline of the action roguelike
Decline is, of course, a relative term. So far, nearly 200 titles tagged as roguelikes have appeared at the Steam store in 2016 – a significant increase compared to last year’s 146. It would seem that the market for procedural generation, permadeath, and wildly random powerup combinations is healthier than ever.
But take a moment to think about it: when was the last time a game like that made a splash? 2015 gave us Crypt of the Necrodancer, The Swindle, GALAK-Z, Nuclear Throne, Downwell, as well as the definitive version of The Binding of Isaac in Afterbirth. Where were the titles to break the monotonous procession of barely distinguishable overhead twin-stick shooters this year? Well, we had Enter the Gungeon but not much else. Sadly, in an oversaturated field crowded by Isaac clones, there’s a much lower chance of genuinely original efforts like Duskers and Switchcars getting the attention they deserve.
You may have missed: The aforementioned Switchcars
Be on the lookout for: Metroidvanias. They’re taking over, slowly but steadily.
For those who thought Twitch was simply a place to passively watch strangers swearing at each other for abandoning a lane in League of Legends, welcome to 2016! Throughout the year, developers have been coming up with increasingly ingenious ways to exploit the popular streaming platform for the purposes of promoting and enhancing their games. In January, tinyBuild announced that they would release Punch Club whenever viewers managed to complete the game in a Twitch event they had organised – a canny marketing move that surely played a part in the game’s subsequent success.
Clustertruck creators, Landfall, have taken things further by invading player streams, producing in-game messages that alternate between friendly encouragement and playful threats, messing up the colour palette, and even fooling around with its physics, essentially changing the rules of the game for the hapless player. Likewise, Steam freebie One Troll Army allows viewers to control the waves of enemies threatening the titular character’s lovingly built fort. While there is a fundamental flaw to some of those attempts at Twitch integration in their requirement of active viewers – a luxury hardly available to most streamers – the trend seems, nonetheless, here to stay, with even the likes of Telltale incorporating Twitch-like Crowd Play features.
Inspiration from more than the usual cinematic suspects
There’s a certain type of cinematic spectacle that lends itself perfectly to being adapted. If it features frequent shootouts, a car chase or two at breakneck speed, a slithering alien monster, or a glum, rooftop-frequenting superhero, there’s probably a game version of it out already. However, other, less action-oriented films, have been hitherto ignored by developers due, perhaps, to a slower pace and a more introverted approach focusing on characterisation and psychological rather than physical conflict. How do you translate Paris, Texas or Stranger than Paradise into something playable?
2016 was the year that several indie developers took up the challenge. Jalopy and Wheels of Aurelia are both road-movie games, though they couldn’t be more different in terms of tone and presentation, with the former offering a melancholy first-person drive through the countries of the former Eastern bloc, and the latter constructing a breezy isometric tour of the Italian coastline during the late ’70s, livened up by heated discussions on the issues of the day: art and sports and politics, and how they interweave with the personal histories of the various passengers you pick up along the way.
You may have missed: The Last Time goes for a less insular, yet still strangely overlooked, genre: the buddy-cop film; In Search of Paradise.
Be on the lookout for: Keep Driving, Darkside Detective (slated for a 2016 release, the first chapter is currently playable and free).
New directions for the first-person shooter
If there was a genre that desperately needed a new direction to reverse its flagging fortunes over the last few years , it was the traditional FPS. Titanfall was pushed as a seismic shift for the genre but it failed to live up to expectations. Black Ops III might have improved on the commercial performance of immediate predecessors Advanced Warfare and Ghosts, but it’s impact can’t be compared to that of earlier entries in the series. Αnd does anyone even remember Battlefield: Hardline?
The latest installments of the two stalwart franchises took the same road, albeit in radically opposite directions, seeking rejuvenation in new settings and timelines: Battlefield 1 finding acclaim in the muddy trenches of World War I, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare – in a markedly less popular decision – taking its deathmatches to space. DOOM opted for a different approach, retaining its familiar techno-mystical narrative trappings, but incorporating a leaf out of Bulletstorm’s book. Id accelerated the pace and ramped up the difficulty, demanding split-second shifts of attention between the finger pulling the trigger and the eye lining up the next shot. Ultimately, DOOM delivered an experience that looked to the past without being beholden to it, and gave us a gallery of 2016’s most gloriously violent shooting thrills.
You may have missed: Titanfall 2, with its newfound respect for the single-player experience.
Be on the lookout for: One can hope for Call of Duty: Renaissance Warfare, Prey 2.
Textual input has always held a certain kind of retro appeal, and generating a corresponding niche demand. Whether it manifested as the parser processing the choices of the faithful interactive fiction crowd, or the proto-scripting systems underpinning the surprisingly healthy hacking simulator scene. However, this year we have seen games utilising command-line interfaces in ways designed only to appeal to a broader audience, but also to creatively transform typed verbal commands into artillery for negotiating real-time, action-based sequences.
Duskers inverted a long-standing hierarchy by making textual macro commands a faster, more efficient method of controlling your scavenging drones than your mouse, as well as an ingenious way of amplifying a player’s identification with their unseen handler. Quadrilateral Cowboy, meanwhile, showed how such commands can be employed for solving complex spatio-temporal puzzles and even accommodate competitive play. Both titles demonstrated the possibilities of repurposing a seemingly obsolete input system as a means of exploring new territories for game design.
Japan embraces the PC
This was the year that, interspersed among the numerous low-budget visual novels that have always made the platform their home, the PC saw an influx of former console exclusives gradually warming up to the prospect of being accessed via mouse and keyboard. The trend noted by Jason Coskrey in BitSummit 2015 has continued unabated, Japanese developers encouraged no doubt by Steam’s relative lack of red tape and the unlikely success stories of titles like Dragon Ball Xenoverse.
New entries in beloved series like Zero Escape have been cropping up alongside completely new IPs like I am Setsuna. Most importantly, however, a number of previously unavailable classics have slowly started making their way to the PC: a number of Final Fantasy titles (including the famously divisive tenth installment), Disgaea making its debut on the platform, and cult franchises like Danganropa and God Eater – the majority of them meticulously ported and warmly received by an audience that has been patiently waiting for their arrival.
The continuing maturation of pixel art
Our appreciation for pixel art as not just a vehicle for retro gaming nostalgia, but a legitimate alternative to the medium’s love for the latest technologically-defined aesthetics dates at least as far back as Capybara’s Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. Still, this year’s explosion of visual creativity is notable. Week after week, we’ve seen a range of titles that use pixel art to their own ends.
Not only did developers grace us with some of their most stunningly beautiful worlds in 2016 (the magical energies, viscera, and untamed flora in Slain!; the picturesque settlements and fairy tale groves of Moon Hunters) but they displayed an incredible command of tone through visuals: from the Victorian slapstick of Monsters and Monocles and Enter the Gungeon, to the abject melancholy of Hyper Light Drifter and The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human. The aesthetic has been foregrounded and evolved so much in the last year that one of the creators of gorgeous platformer Owlboy was prompted to suggest a new term, “hi-bit”, to describe a visual style that, while reminiscent of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, has moved beyond their limitations.
You may have missed: Seasons After Fall, The Curious Expedition, Kingdom: New Lands.
Be on the lookout for: Death’s Gambit; EITR; Witchmarsh; Rain World; The Last Night; we’d really need another list to cover all of these.