Justin's Epic Top Ten Game Picks for 2016

I was enamored with the idea of this introduction being something of a summary of the past year as a whole, not just for games and media, but of my life and the goings on of the world to some extent. I am not sure I have the mental fortitude or wisdom to give that kind of insight into the current state of the world, but I can tell you 2016 has been a fantastic year for both video games and my personal growth as a human being. I wrote and read more than I have in any year prior, and I concentrated on doing what I loved and making improvements in my life. This was also the year I played a majority of games that actually came out this year, in my continued attempts to improve as a writer and commentator. 2016 was crazy, but great new video games were there through it all: stressful work days, adopting pets, the whole election, losing weight, everything. I am unsure how I would have handled some of the more harrowing moments in my life this year if there wasn't a slurry of digital worlds to find myself in when I felt like the real world was lost.

This list has changed and iterated more times than I can count, and it was challenging not to just make this a gush article where I talk about the dozens of games I spent time with this year. Good games, bad games, disappointments, and surprises, there is not a game out there that doesn’t merit a look, even if it's just to learn about why it is terrible, why it is great, or what it does that is unique or interesting. It was super hard to whittle this down to ten games, so real quick before I move on to the list, I want to give a nod to both Playdead Studios’ Inside and Ghost Town Games’ Overcooked! as they were two fantastic and beautiful video games that I encourage people to try, both of which were at one point in this list in the last slot.

All that notwithstanding, here it is: My are my ten favorite video games of 2016~!

10. Civilization VI
Civilization VI, like its predecessors is the perfect ‘one more turn’ game. Minutes turn into hours when you are creating a mercantile empire, spreading your religion, or conquering the world with an iron fist. This particular entry into the series excels at making the most approachable Civilization game yet, and the quality of life changes are noticed and appreciated by people new to the series and long time fans alike. It takes a new approach with its visual aesthetic and framing, I think it successfully mixes realism and cartoony elements to make a consistent and charming look. I had a hot and heavy three weeks with this game at launch, and will likely return to it in the summer game doldrums until the next iteration hits stores.

9. Firewatch
For most of my life, I often found myself not wanting to engage with horror or other exceedingly emotional media, be they video games or otherwise. For years I have had a very practical approach for these experiences, in games especially: I don't enjoy feeling scared or sad, why would I want to interact with this media that intentionally incites these negative feelings? I didn't understand, and I didn’t have a positive experience in my past to color these experiences in a positive light. Firewatch was very much that game to me. Firewatch may not be first video game to make me cry or feel uncomfortable, but my experience with it was a turning point for me in many ways. The story and character development was so powerful, it opened my mind up to the idea that experiencing intense emotions in a controlled environment is not only something I can learn from, but something I enjoy and want to engage with further. To boot, Firewatch’s writing and voice acting is stellar, and the Olly Moss art style is so beautiful that I considered getting a screenshot framed for my game room. The game is not flawless, but it has a fantastic narrative and had a profound impact on how I will be consuming media now and in the future.

8. Uncharted 4
Uncharted 4 was my first serious foray into the well established Naughty Dog franchise, and I apparently picked an excellent entry to start with. I know the comparison to movies has gotten stale at this point, but no other developer does true cinematic movie-like game experiences like the folks at Naughty Dog. Start to finish, this game is a gorgeous and highly-produced experience. I often complain of linearity and a feeling of a lack of player agency in similar games, but the remarkable visuals and well-executed character development far outweigh any  issues I had with its gunplay and lack of mechanical complexity. The performances from Nolan North and Troy Baker as Nathan Drake and his estranged brother are impressive, regardless of the medium, and the character development is some of the best in the business. Hopefully Naughty Dog takes what they have learned from this series and The Last of Us to disrupt the ‘Triple-A’ game scene again this console generation.

7. The Witness
Childhood me would see The Witness and flee in fear. Puzzle solving? Learning from my mistakes? An intense level of mental challenge? Not my cup of tea, leave that stuff to Mr. Wilson’s math class. But, as an adult, a programmer, and a problem solver, this game was like the perfect storm. It balanced relaxation and beauty with challenge and mystery in a way that clicked with me on a profound level. The game is expertly laid out to teach you the skills you need to move forward without any tutorialization or any written language of note. I also appreciate that it is a game with complex visual puzzles that still manages to be very colorblind friendly, and it uses its beautiful high-contrast style to great effect. Jonathan Blow might be a genius, and might also be a crazy person, but he sure knows how to design a peerless gameplay experience. Don’t get me wrong, this praise is not meant to imply that The Witness is  a game for everyone, and there are a few puzzles I doubt I will ever go back to complete, but it’s definitely one of the best games I played all year.

6. Dark Souls 3
I have been a fan of the Souls franchise since my first foray into Lordran on the Xbox 360. In writing it sounds so obtuse, but for my money Dark Souls 3 is the closest we are going to get to  a ‘Greatest Hits’ of past From Software titles. In incorporates so many elements in both the gameplay and the narrative that are nods to Demon’s Souls and past Dark Souls games, and at times even felt like a deconstruction of the telltale elements of the series. Dark Souls 3 has such  an extreme dower tone and atmosphere, even when compared to other games in the same series, and I just cannot get enough of it. The series handles the idea of mystery better than many others, and I had an unshakeable feeling like something was amiss during my entire time with the game. There is more going on than you are lead to believe, and the way you interact with NPCs paints a very different world as you progress through the game seeking your destiny as the ashen one. There really isn't a lot more I can say, most of the nuance of what made the game great to me would be lost on people unfamiliar with the series, but the continued quality of life changes made to each iteration have made the games more approachable. There has never been a better time to play a Souls game, and while this entry may be the third in the series, maybe take a look into this one if you are a souls noob with piqued curiosity.

5. Titanfall 2
The traditional military aesthetic is not something I am particularly fond of, but it is often hard to avoid if you enjoy first person shooters in the modern day. It has been interesting to see the trend develop over the last few years as the Call of Duty’s and other mainstream shooters of the world have come full circle back to the sci-fi themes of the shooters of the 90s and early 2000s. The first Titanfall was heavily criticized for its lack of a single-player experience and limited progression, but Respawn Entertainment worked tirelessly to combat these sentiments in the sequel. The single-player campaign was phenomenal, and stood out despite coming out in a year with an array of spectacular first-person shooter experiences. To remain spoiler free, I did not gush about the ‘Effects and Causes’ mission in my review, but its design is paramount despite being in a game with a dozen other unique mechanical vignettes. The multiplayer also makes improvements over its predecessor. The gameplay builds on what made the first Titanfall the cult hit that it was, and while I have fallen more off of it more than i expected since my review, it is the best non-Overwatch-non-Splatoon multiplayer shooter I have played in years. The new hero-shooter style titans are a welcomed addition, and it shows serious changed without negatively affecting the core on foot shooting. And its fast; not Doom fast, but some of the fastest and most smoothly flowing traversal in nearly any shooter. With more DLC and multiplayer maps to come, I see myself returning to Titanfall 2 to get my shooter fix soon.

4. Hitman
If I had decided on a more categorical set of awards like I have written in years past, this game would be a top contender for ‘biggest surprise’. I have poked-around Blood Money and Absolution in the past, but mostly bounced off them. The self-serious story created such dissonance with the goofy gameplay that it implied to me that the developers didn’t really understand what they had on their hands. On top of the series pedigree, IO Interactive drastically changed the business model and technical back-end of their game halfway through development in a way that instilled uncertainty in pundits and consumers alike. These things were stacked against Hitman, but it still managed not only being a fun game in its own right, but proved a point about how a well-executed episodic plan can really enhance the quality of a game. Releasing the maps in episodes enabled players to dig in and explore the different locations, often revealing a depth and scope that is not immediately apparent on an initial stab at a contract. The episodic structure worked in tandem with the mastery system of progression to encourage people to replay areas, and smartly rewarded them with more opportunities on that specific map in addition to tools and features to assist you for further missions. Never before playing Hitman have I had to pause a game due to uncontrollable laughter, but this year I did, in a game about contract killing and shadow governments, and I think that says a lot about what IO Interactive was able to accomplish with Hitman.

3. Overwatch
I am not too ashamed to admit that I threw a lot of shade at this game in the time between its initial reveal and the first public beta. It was using salvaged assets from their failed Titan project, and it mixed in influences from Team Fortress 2 and Super Monday Night Combat, two games that I very much did not enjoy. Blizzard Entertainment is famous in the industry for having one of the most pristine records, with of decades of shipping smashing successes. While I had no doubt that Overwatch was going to be successful, I was taken aback by how much of a phenomenon it has turned out to be. And even more so, how much I ended up enjoying playing it myself. It’s colorful, it’s inclusive, it’s approachable, and it combats a lot of problems that other competitive games have with community and early-game play. It managed to create a deep team multiplayer experience without compromising approachability as a new player, in a way that games like League of Legends have never been able to. This game is damn near perfect, and I expect hundreds of thousands of people (myself included) to continue playing it for years to come.

2. Doom
Keeping a summary of what I love and respect about Doom to a reasonable length has been one of the greatest writing challenges I have been posed with all year. So much about this game’s development process, pedigree, media hype, and marketing was working against Doom to the point where I had all but written the game off as a disappointment. In a post John Carmack world at Id Software, and the early musings of the game pointing to a conclusion closer to Call of Duty with demons, I had honestly not even considered the idea that this game was going to be good, let alone one of the most well-constructed video games in years. I lied about Hitman earlier guys, I’m sorry. Doom was the real best surprise of 2016.

While the multiplayer has turned out to be the same disappointing action it was in the public beta, the single-player campaign is probably the best single-player shooter campaign I have ever played. The levels are extraordinarily designed, taking influence from modern games like Halo while still not losing the classic feel of Hell and the Mars installation from the series’ past. The developers coined the term ‘push-forward gameplay’ for the particular style they have created with the fast movement and gunplay, and it’s an extraordinarily apt moniker. Every mechanical layer of that game encourages speed and moving forward above all else. The glory kill system is a clever solution to not only keep the pace of the combat up, but also to avoid the inclusion of a very not-Doom-like regenerating health system. The whole extent of the moment to moment action of Doom feels like the splits the middle of what was loved about the classic 90s games and what makes modern shooters great. I could sit here all day and gush about the importance of its design choices for the future of the medium, or how it will go down in history as the prime example of an amazing game that was not sent to outlets early for review, but I will leave you with this. Doom is amazing, fast, brutal, and fun. Doom feels like an extrapolation of the horror and atmosphere that was only implied in the the 1990’s PC game roots.  Doom is not purely just one the best games of 2016, it has ascended to the ranks to some of the best of the Doom series and the pantheon of shooters as a whole.

P.S. the soundtrack is some of the best instrumental metal I have ever heard, and I spend a lot of time listening to it outside of the game. It meshes with the tone and the gameplay perfectly on every level. Mick Gordon is a genius.

1. Stardew Valley
Picking a number one for this list was extraordinarily challenging. I struggled with a lot of internal conflict about balancing what I thought was important about each game, and how to weigh the importance of different concepts in my head. The hours I put in, how much I appreciate the mechanical design, the visuals, the importance of the game politically, or what it means for the medium as a whole. I waffled back and forth between Stardew Valley and Doom countless times, but ultimately I found Stardew Valley to be more personally important video game to me in 2016. It hasn’t cemented itself into the tabernacle of gaming giants quite like Doom did this year, but it got me through some dark times and consumed me in a way few other games ever have.

Stardew Valley takes my childhood love of the Harvest Moon series, and splashes in mechanics from popular PC Survival games like Terraria, collecting and customization systems like in Animal Crossing, and even some good old-fashioned romance. The game appears outwardly simple, but is so chock-full of complex systems that it has an almost never-ending amount of things to do. The developer, Eric Barone- which, by the way, was the ONE guy who did all of the art, soundtrack, game design, and programming for the whole game- made countless brilliant design decisions despite his limited experience. You are given a myriad of options of how to spend your time, but with the inclusion of the community center and Joja Mart options, players are empowered to concentrate on the aspects that they enjoy about the game without fear of missing out on items and rewards you need to move the rest of the game forward. Outside of the game mechanics, what Stardew Valley has in spades is charm. The color palette is bright, the atmosphere is overwhelmingly positive and cheery, and this music is a love-letter to the 16 bit era. In a year where a lot of screwed up stuff has been going on around the world, there was no better escape in the world than going to Pelican town to make merry with the townsfolk.

It is the contrast and intermingling of these main concepts of expertly-designed mechanics and charming emotion that pushes my feelings on the game from enjoyment to pure love. Stardew Valley balances clean system-driven game design with simple-yet-real emotion in a way no game I have played before has. For every hour I spent optimizing my farm layout, I spent an hour getting to know the local citizenry and handing out presents. The hours melted away when I was deep in, and I still find myself thinking about it despite not playing it for a number of weeks. I have put over 200 hours into Stardew Valley in 2016 and I loved every minute of it. I guarantee I will put many more hours into it in the future, and am even more excited about future updates and what other games Eric can bring into the world.

-Justin Wicker