One of my favourite things about end of year lists on RPS is they never match the personal list of any individual writer. They’re a compromise between us all, an erratic, uncoordinated vote where consensus sees games of real worth rising to the top and filling our annual advent calendar. It makes for a list that’s far more broad and useful to the largest number of readers. And because it’s driven by nothing other than what we’ve all enjoyed that year is equally likely to be filled with the tripliest of As and the most obscure of indies. Still though, it leaves me wanting to say, “But! But there are THESE games too!” So below is my list of my favourite games of 2016, far less useful to far fewer readers, but goodness me, a collection of games that deserve adulation.
It’s worth adding, even here there are games missed off that were fantastic in 2016. I loved Kathy Rain for instance, as much for what I thought it did well as for where I disagreed with its choices. Owlboy reminded me of the joy of playing the first Mario & Luigi game on DS. There was a superb single-player mission in Titanfall 2, even if I think it perhaps stood out more due to its sheer competence in an incompetent genre. I spent a ridiculous number of hours playing The Division this year. Nelly Cootalot was hilarious.
And then there are the games I now feel guilty for not listing even here! We are spoilt for entertaining games, is my point. And just as the advent calendar leaves people screaming, “BUT WHAT ABOUT DARK SOULS 3/STAR DEW VALLEY/SUBNAUTICA?”, even making my own list leaves me wanting to shout such remarks at myself. (What about the missing advent games? It’s the democratic nature of the calendar that sees such worthy games not qualify into the top 24 – take it up with Horace.)
Just to note, I’ve put links to the games’ Steam sales for each entry, which has ended up making me worry people might think there’s shenanigans here – I just want to make clear we have no referral deal with Steam (they don’t do them), so that’s purely my saying, “LOOK! Great game is cheap atm!”
All that said, gosh, here are some good games. Seven of them, in no particular order:
I called Pony Island “the smartest game of 2016” back on January 5th. I was only kind of joking. Because I wasn’t really sure how any game was going to be smarter. And in a year of so many very smart games, few were.
Pony Island is, on a surface level that it barely even shows, a game about jumping a cute ponycorn over some white sticks. What it really is, is a battle for your soul. Your literal soul. Along the way it messes you about, from its opening muddle of broken menus to its complete collapse at a code level, incessantly throwing ideas at you while making you feel really fucking uncomfortable.
2015-16 has been drowned in games unwittingly made by developers for other developers, where their own passion for the crafting of a game is conflated with the player’s interest in playing it. Coding puzzles have been everywhere, and invariably lose me minutes in when it becomes apparent that a penchant for programming languages that I’ll never gain is necessary for pursuing progress. I was really worried Pony Island would do that too when I saw those screens of code, but if you’re with me on this, fear not. It’s another layer to its multiple deceptions, the code screens themselves closer to an 80s Spectrum game than anything requiring three years training in C++. Chuck in some eloquent Brechtian Estrangement, meta commentary on the nature of meta commentary, and repeatedly changing direction without warning.
There’s a curse to releasing too early in January (I guess devs think the release schedule looks clear and it’ll get them more attention – there’s a reason it’s clear: your game will be forgotten by February), but Pony Island has stayed with me despite this. It’s stunning, preternaturally cruel, and at one point turns into a text adventure.
The game is currently a ridiculously tiny £1.31 in the Steam Winter Sale.
I didn’t play Oxenfree until this holiday. I don’t know how or why I missed it, especially after Pip’s review, but I think I ended up mislabeling the game in my brain and forgetting about it. Wow, I wish I hadn’t, because I’d have spent the entire advent calendar planning time yelling at everyone that it should be right near the top. I am just bowled away by how utterly brilliant this game is.
It’s a game so completely stunning that I want to start an awards ceremony so I can start handing them out to it. Best Dialogue, Best Acting, Best Animations, Best Sarcasm, Best Use Of A Radio, Best Use Of Player Choice. I swear half of these awards I’d have accidentally given to Firewatch if I’d not played this just in time – it actually beats Firewatch for dialogue and acting. That is quite the feat.
This is the tale of five young adults who sneak their way onto a privately owned island out of tourist season, overnight when everything is closed and everyone is gone. It’s meant to be for a beach party, but most everyone doesn’t show up, and those who do explore some strange rumours that a nearby cave lets you pick up weird radio signals. You play as Alex, a high school graduate who has just gained a new step-brother, Jonas, along for the trip, with her long-term friends Ren and Nona, and the Cordelia of their gang, Clarissa. Carrying a portable FM radio, at Ren’s encouragement she tries to pick up these weird signals, triggering a series of inexplicable supernatural events that see them scattered around the island, sometimes possessed, sometimes dead, utterly confused, and trying to unravel a decades-old mystery before their time is up.
I don’t want to be a dick about this, but I think it’s pretty important to say how Oxenfree really demonstrates how hacky and half-arsed is the majority of what churns out from Telltale. The script is written by Adam Hines, who was the lead writer for Telltale’s only not-awful recent series, Tales From The Borderlands. And just like how their losing The Walking Dead’s Sean Vanaman to see him co-create Firewatch, losing Hines suggests they’re simply not able to facilitate their top talent to unleash their creative best. Because Oxenfree takes those key elements of those Telltale games – dialogue choice defining progress, character relationships adaptable to the decisions the player makes, story ruling over puzzle – and shows you how they can be bloody masterful.
Every single aspect of Oxenfree is so supremely well designed, from the speech bubble dialogue selection, to the birds-eye view third-person perspective, to the way the radio tuning is unobtrusive and elegant, to the exemplary way the island opens up to the player until it’s completely free to access, to… oh, everything. And it’s beautiful. The character animations are so subtle, but so wonderful, the backgrounds gorgeously painted, the presentation of the visual disturbances, the time distortions, the invasions of horror, all exquisite. But more than anything else, it’s the script. It’s Whedon if Whedon weren’t terrible now, the two-thousand-and-teens teens speaking in fast, witty bursts, out-sniping each other in a manner that is affectionate or cruel with pitch perfection. But with depth, pathos, real senses of untouched personal histories that influence who they are and how they act. They’re not “sassy” as they so agonisingly could have been; they’re smart and smart-mouthed, millennial in an honest and perspicacious way that television has so far failed to even understand.
It answers enough questions not to frustrate, but leaves enough unknown not to patronise or undermine your own imagination. It’s a game that gets so, so much right, and very, very little wrong. Goodness me, I wished I’d played this back in January.