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.
There's a rather unfair temptation to write less about Firewatch, my Game Of The Year for 2016, because I've already said it all on the site before. I'm going to be a bit shit and give in to that temptation. So for better details, here's my gushing review that absolutely captures why I love it so much, and then my entry in the Calendar piece in which I attempt to confront some of the others' arguments against.
Also, I feel really rather unsure of everything having just finished Oxenfree, and not being sure if it's the post-game-ending high or if it actually is slightly better!
But I loved it. I have rarely been so taken out of my own world as by this, something so utterly human and yet completely alien to my own life. It sang with honesty, and yes, while I can see the arguments to be made about the possible insecurity of their feeling the need to include all the larger-plot red herrings, stayed grounded and true and fundamental. It had a true beauty, far deeper than its breathtaking scenery and sublime animations, and it is for this reason that this is the game I've loved most this year. More than Oxenfree? Oh, it's so close.
It's funny, the hyperbole in this industry. If you want to see over-excitement in action, check out the press quotes a game uses to promote itself. Check out quotes of mine they use. So often I think people just want their remark to stand out from the noise, to altruistically give a game the attention they think it deserves. Call something, really without knowing you're doing it, "the best ever at..." and it's much more likely to catch a busy reader's attention than if you more accurately state "it's extremely competent in its field." So, when I described the Sorcery! series as one of the best RPGs of all time, was I guilty of that? I don't think so.
It's definitely the best RPG of this year. A category I don't think I even realised it neatly fit into by the end of the second of its four episodes. It was a choose-your-own-adventure, right? Steve Jackson's famous Fighting Fantasy outlier, a complexity never seen before in the 80s boom for the form, "ported" if you will to video game. But while that analysis stood up for the first episode, I and everyone else found ourselves having to bend time and space to maintain it for part 2. Part 1 was faithful to the book, while reimagining vast elements of its presentation for both mobile and PC (okay, primarily for mobile), not least including the stunning 3D map on which it was played out. But Part 2 did things even the most complicated of paperbacks never could, letting you travel through time, replay sections in cleverly communicated time loops, and allowed the player to take a less hurried, more meandering route through its story. We all said, "They're really expanding the possibilities for Jackson's work," and the like, trying to find a way to keep it inside the genre it had originally appeared to be.
But by Part 3 everyone had to give up on that tidy aspiration, and acknowledge that this was becoming something bigger, more elaborate, more involved, while trying not to trigger the wrath of Jackson fans who might think you dissing the splendor of those times. Thing was, what Inkle created was far better than what Jackson originally wrote, and it would take the complete adventure before I think anyone was quite willing to let themselves realise it.
The adventure of your hero, male or female, as they attempted to retrieve a magic crown from an evil warlock, rapidly became massively more intricate and involved than the first episode implied. By part 3 (my least favourite of them, incidentally, which is barely a criticism considering the high standards of all four) you were free roaming through what was, but for a very nicely illustrated table-top, a text adventure. That's been done in IF a good few times, and often to enormous success, but at a certain point here this became something else, something new. It was an RPG being described to you rather than shown, and your decisions episodes earlier were having meaningful impacts on what you were experiencing much later on. Some were cosmetic, if effective, others were really fundamental to the story you experienced, but all were presented without fanfare, with results that belied the nonchalance with which it was delivered.
It did everything BioWare's best do, but for combat, in a whole new way. It reinterpreted its source material with deserved boldness, and the complete game stands out to me as one of RPG's true greats. Hyperbole? I really hope not. I hope it's a statement that stands the test of time, and we see these games remembered alongside Planescape: Torment, Dragon Age and Pillars Of Eternity.
All four games are currently 60% off in the Steam sale, making it just £8.37 or your local variant thereof.
I have a depth of respect Alice would never take seriously for her ability with the most difficult of games. She breezily talks about lasting over five minutes in Devil Daggers, or blithely remarks on how she sees the difficulty of Binding Of Isaac to be about familiarity rather than skill. She is ludicrously talented at the hardest challenges, and far too modest to ever tell you. And it's the sort of respect that's accompanied by awe and envy, as I so madly flail around at the same. There are games at which I excel, but usually the sort that do not come with the same potential bragging rights (and believe me, I would), but in the main I'd say I'm mostly average, on average, when it comes to specialist gaming challenges. (A position from which I think useful reviews are produced, as it happens.)
Which is all to say, I'm dreadful at Enter The Gungeon, but bloody hell, I love it. There is, for me, a peculiar catalogue of games I've adored playing despite being hopeless at them - Teleglitch, Nuclear Throne, Chuckie Egg 2 - and Gungeon is very much in it. And on top of that, I really struggle to elegantly explain just why it stands out to me in the busy world of pixelly roguelites. Admittedly the genre has - mercifully - started thinning a little over 2016, but Steam is hardly lacking for new entries every week or so. Why this one?
The truth is, it doesn't do anything especially original. Rather, it does everything just spectacularly well. It is, for me, a feature presentation of what has made this micro-genre so worthwhile, gloriously giving us the frantic movement, the twin-stick action, the almost-bullet-hell business, and the world-destroying agony of deserved permadeath.
And it's cheerful. That's so unusual, and blimey it makes Gungeon stand out, such wanton silliness presented not as grimdark entrails and gore-thic misery, but big bright smiles and happy-go-lucky sentient bullets. And one really ripped gull. Oh, and the best dodge-roll I can think of. It's had me roaring with that excellent bemusement of delight at the circumstances and disgust with myself, as I fail yet again to get it right. And this is where Gungeon really shines: the blame is always on me, not it. It doesn't feel rigged or glitchy or any other convenient excuse for not blaming myself - it's always on me.
Enter The Gungeon is currently half price in the Steam Sale, down to £5.49.
Typing as interaction isn't a new gimmick, but it's peculiarly rare, and seemingly always welcome. And Epistory gets it more right than most. This is an action RPG where your means of combat is entirely by typing in the words that hover above the heads of incoming waves of enemies. And just as importantly, it's a wonderfully pretty tale of a girl riding her three-tailed fox steed, in an origami world that literally unfolds around her.
Typing doesn't only fight, but also allows you to interact with objects in the world, and while it's never rational, it's always a pleasure. The world (I can't resist doing it again) unfolds as you play, the paper ground flipping and flapping in the most ridiculously satisfying manner, opening up previously newsprint-covered voids into vivid new lands to explore. And the further you get, the more complicated your typing abilities become. You switch between different powers (fire, ice, etc) by typing them ("FIRE", "ICE", etc) to change, then use that to kill specific enemy types. 12-letter monsters come racing toward you requiring your focus, while shorter-worded more lumbering creatures need to be picked off as they encroach, and the game claims to adjust its difficulty in response to its measuring of your typing ability.
There, it did slightly let me down - the game never became difficult, and as someone who spends half his life typing, that was something I really wanted. But if you're after something to help you practice a new keyboard layout, goodness me, you couldn't ask for a better way. It comes with options to switch from QWERTY to DVORAK, AZERTY, FARTZ, QWERTZ, COLEMAK, WORKMAN, BEPO and NEO2. (I made one of those up.) And either way, it's such a complete pleasure to play.
The game is currently Christmas themed, which is rather lovely, and has just added complete Japanese support. It seems that a year since their Early Access release, they're still adding bits and pieces, and taking good care of it, which is always a pleasure to see.
I include this in this list because despite being a quiet, reserved, and more than anything, lovely game, it feels important to remember it with its quietness. Something Pip did splendidly back in June, and something that is well worth doing again as the year draws to its end.
Epistory is joining in the Steam Sale frenzy, down 40% to £6.59.
OneShot is the game I've enjoyed telling people about most this year, and I've only had three weeks to do that in so far. My wife, not the least bit interested in video games, has either feigned more effectively than usual, or actually shown a genuine interest, in hearing about its brilliant ideas (and seemed genuinely pained when I told her about the ending I picked). My 10 year old nephew was definitely interested, and immediately drew comparisons with Undertale, leading me to have the strangest moment of realising 10 year olds have also played Undertale, and then explaining the concept of the "fourth wall" to him.
Which is to say, from no expectations, this little RPGmaker bundle of pixels has become unquestionably one of my favourite games of 2016, and possibly of the last few years.
Which feels horribly kitsch and clever-clever to say, doesn't it? "Oh, look at me rating this obscure game made with the derided game engine, saying I like it more than [insert AAA spectacle]." Yeah, I hate that guy too. This isn't that, I promise. OneShot isn't some left-of-left-field peculiarity, only of possible interest to hipsters who otherwise exclusively play Sega Master System games only released in Portugal. It's a game that you will really love, that understands why you love games, and does all sorts of things that you didn't even realise games could do to your PC.
Which of course means it comes with the added complication of being one of those sorts of games that can only be spoiled for you by being described. So I'm not describing it at all here, have you noticed? I'm just hoping that you'll trust me, and have a spare six quid to risk on my being right about this. If you want more details, you can read my spoiler-free review, and if you want everything spelled out and all the surprises ruined, you can read my subscriber-only complete spoiler review.
So let me part by telling you that it's adorable, funny, outrageously clever, just a few hours long (but with a new-game-plus mode), and breaks fourth walls like a hammer-wielding maniac at a Brechtian theatre. It'll mess with your PC (entirely safely) in ways that bend reality around you, and it will have you completely wound around its little finger within minutes of starting. It's utterly wonderful, and it's the game this year that I most wish I had the power to make everyone at least give a go.
OneShot only came out this month, so is being a little cautious with its Steam Sale discount, just down 10%. I suspect they'd have seen more money come in with closer to 25%, but hey-ho. Still though, it's a tiny £6.29.
There you go
That's my list, compiled based on the games I most wanted to write about during the time I'm supposed to be having a break from writing, primarily existing because I needed to write about Oxenfree before I burst. I really hope that you can pick up one or two of them and have the same pleasure I did from a really fantastic year for PC games. And I hope you're getting at least a slight break from a difficult year (mine was rubbish, made better by games like the above), and have a really fantastic New Year and a splendid 2017. Love you.