Alex Navarro is an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer, known for his eclectic work, flamboyant stage presence, extravagant dress and makeup, and wide vocal range. If you can figure out which of 2016's most tragically dead pop culture icons he stole this bio from, feel free to scream at him about it on Twitter.
It would have been very easy to keep the running joke of "____ was a year I won't remember very fondly" intros going this year; too easy, in fact. We all know 2016 was a righteous fucker of a year. That feeling has been expressed so many times over now that it's nearing Gangnam Style, "Where's the Beef?", Bart Simpson saying "I Didn't Do It", shared on Facebook by my 70-year-old mother levels of overexposure. You probably don't need me going into full-on sadsack mode again to drive that point home even further. You know, and if you don't know, well, that's probably a much longer conversation we need to have at another time and place.
This is the time and place to talk about video games. Video games were good in 2016. So good, in fact, that whittling this list down took me way longer than actually writing it did. I had to make some brutally hard cuts--sorry Titanfall 2, Uncharted 4, Overcooked!, Amplitude, and Civ VI (among quite a few others). You were all fantastic games, but just barely missed the cutoff. It's stupid that I had to let go of such obvious, high quality releases, and I'd love to have written more about each of you, but I'm late posting this list as is, and others have spoken to your merits better than I would have anyway.
With that, let's get at this proper top
10 11 list, and leave this miserable fucking year in the dust.
I have something of a fraught history with trucking games. It's not that I've only ever played terrible ones, but the severity of those terrible ones' terribleness has mostly stopped me from ever exploring the genre beyond professional requirements. I'd always been amused by the idea of the Euro Truck Simulator franchise, bewildered by the seemingly intense fandom that sprung up around them, but I'd never brought myself to try them. Then along came American Truck Simulator.
It's hard to explain exactly what this game does to my brain without giving a little bit of context. I spent a number of my teenage years driving up and down the state of California. I was in a band, we toured semi-frequently, and mostly played shows in-state. Between those years, and the many years spent driving to E3, I've burned off an ungodly number of hours driving along the dusty-ass spine of California. It's an experience any reasonable person would hold no fondness for. It's hot, it's sparsely populated, parts of it smell like I imagine certain areas in Darkest Dungeon do. But I, apparently, am not a reasonable person. I love those in-between spaces of America, the small pockets of humanity that spring up along our highways and interstates. It's something I remember Austin writing about in his review of The Crew some years back, lamenting how that game failed to allow room for the player to just drive, to experience the space itself, without a lot of action getting in the way. Austin might actually love American Truck Simulator, because that's all this game is.
It renders the states of California, Nevada, and Arizona as of this writing. Not exactly the whole of America, but a distinctive region, built out in suitably large scale--even bigger as of a recent engine patch--to give players the sense that they are driving down a believably long, boring highway. The trucking portion of the game almost feels incidental in a way. Yes, you get ample ways to customize your very own big rig, and can even build out a decent little trucking business, if so inclined. For my part, I haven't even bothered. I spent a long time just doing odd jobs, saving up cash until I could afford my own rig. Once I did, I just started driving. Up and down the I-5, across I-10, back and forth through the smaller, zig-zagging highways that connect the most remote places. I was taking jobs, but only the ones that allowed me to drive the furthest distances. It was enough for me to just crank up the radio (classic rock, old country, soul and R&B, anything but contemporary music), set my GPS, and lose myself for a couple of hours at a time, watching the gas stations, exit signs, and sometimes even literal tumbleweeds pass by.
Those hours have piled up throughout the year. Nothing calms my weird anxiety brain like spacing out on the open road. I don't get to do that very often anymore in real life, but American Truck Simulator has served me well enough to where I didn't miss it quite so much in 2016. Here's hoping they get to keep expanding this game out into further reaches of the country. There's so much more to see, even if I'm only catching it in my rearview mirror.
There's a version of this write-up that is just, "You get to ride a giant birdcatdog 10/10", but I think this game deserves a bit more elaboration than that.
Yes, The Last Guardian is a game where you, a tiny boychild, can ride an enormous birddogcat named Trico, and that is an amazing thing. Having a pet in a video game is rarely much like having a pet in real life. Pets in video games are designed to be obedient and responsive in a way that animals, even well-trained ones, rarely are. Trico isn't just a responsive, cuddly pet. It's a wild animal, and behaves remarkably like one. Sometimes it goes off on its own whims, sometimes it listens to you, you're never quite exactly sure how it will react--unless, of course, you climb up on Trico's head and give it a command, then it usually responds accordingly.
That head business isn't something the game spells out for you. Though it eventually delivers a list of commands you can give Trico, you're mostly forced to learn its eccentricities through experimentation. That's a bold choice, but it's a fitting one given the game's primary aim of making Trico feel like a genuine accidental companion. Everything in The Last Guardian revolves around Trico in some way. That can periodically be frustrating, but the moments when it all comes together are so magnificent that the rougher parts are quickly forgotten. There were moments I literally found myself talking to my TV like the damn thing could hear me. "Good Trico, it's OK. I'll pull this spear out--hey, where are you going? No, don't climb on that. Hey! HEY!" One time my girlfriend came into the living room while I was playing to ask what naughty thing our cat was doing, and I replied, "I wasn't talking to the cat..."
I definitely didn't love every moment of The Last Guardian--some of the puzzles are sloppier than you'd expect a game that spent 10 years in development to have, and its technical issues are disappointing--but the moments where it works are far and away some of my favorite in any Ueda game. The friendship you develop with Trico is an organic one. It feels genuinely earned, and I loved that so, so much.
One of my more embarrassing PAX stories is going to see Hyper Light Drifter last year, and eating shit in front of the devs during a particularly harrowing combat sequence. I felt real dumb, but despite that humiliation, I saw something in Hyper Light Drifter I couldn't ignore.
Hyper Light Drifter is just a tight fucking game. From the controls to the world design, everything exists in a kind of effortless-feeling harmony. It doesn't hit you over the head with exposition, doesn't waste your time with a lot of filler. It knows exactly what it's trying to deliver and delivers on it magnificently.
The only reason this isn't higher up on my list is that I haven't quite finished it yet. It's one of those games I found myself coming back to in fits and starts throughout the year. Part of it was the challenge (of which there is plenty), but also, it's one of those games I just liked savoring for short periods of time. It's a beautiful world to inhabit, and I didn't want to burn through it all at once. I look forward to returning to it as soon as I wake from the coma I plan to fall into as soon as I hit publish on this list.
People understandably seemed taken aback by the sheer volume of praise Inside received this year. When you start hearing things like "the greatest game I've ever played" thrown around this much, I think some suspicion is understandable.
The thing is, I see where people who love Inside are coming from, and I also understand where people who couldn't get into it may have hit a wall. It's just so unlike anything else, not necessarily in mechanics, but in pace, flow, aesthetics. For sure, Inside plays very much like an updated (and much better) version of Playdead's last game, Limbo, but the world is so much more vibrantly oppressive, if that description makes any sense at all.
You have a sense of Inside's world from the moment the game starts up, with your small boy on the run from fascistic forces of indeterminate origin. The hard details of why anything is happening remain opaque throughout, but with each new area, a bit more understanding is gained. Inside's level design is as cohesive as anything I've played in recent memory. Every new area feels distinct, yet still easily connected to the greater whole. It kept surprising me time and time again, and by the time I'd rolled up to its bizarre (and AMAZING) conclusion, Inside had fully won me over.
And, in the words of our friend Austin, it's got a look. Think Limbo meets Andrei Tarkovsky, with a little Cronenberg-ian body horror thrown in for good measure. In terms of art design, it's absolutely my favorite game of the year. I had "fun" playing it too, but as an audiovisual experience, it's nearly unparalleled.
The only other non-Uncharted game that bowled me over with its audiovisual work like Inside was Firewatch. Christ, what a gorgeous thing this is.
I talked earlier about the ease I feel when out on the open road, traveling the spaces between the hustle and bustle of towns and cities. When I can't do that via car, I like escaping into the woods. Being surrounded by nature in some level of isolation is one of the few things that instantly calms me. Walking through Firewatch's vision of Shoshone National Park had roughly the same effect on me, at least in the moments where I wasn't sweating with paranoia, jumping at every crack of a branch or rustling of trees that seemed in anyway ominous or untoward.
That was a lot of my first play-through of Firewatch. Campo Santo wrote Firewatch like a slow-burn thriller, and managed to keep the level of tension at a fever pitch through remarkably subtle events. They manage to wring an enormous amount of stress out of the simple act of walking alone through the woods, purely by virtue of a few early game events that never actually repeat themselves.
Then there's the story, which was the hottest (heh) topic of debate throughout the year. Some didn't care for the way it pulled the rug out from under players toward the end, some thought that was a brilliant choice. I lean more toward the latter, with an understanding that not every single element of the plot ties up as neatly as you might like. In the end, it was the game's core themes of grief and guilt that stuck with me. Henry and Delilah are two wonderfully drawn people, broken in so many different ways, playing off each other in a way that only two broken, lonely people can. Their isolation, and resulting paranoia, is something that struck me much harder during my second play. You see them drawing in their own perceptions of events, frantically trying to understand what's happening around them, fueling each other's anxieties in ways they don't even realize.
I called Henry a coward in my review of Firewatch, and in some ways I regret that. Coward is a loaded term. It evokes a sort of craven personality, which isn't accurate to Henry. The thing is, people who aren't capital-C Cowards can still do cowardly things, and what Henry does to escape his grief and his guilt I think does qualify. It doesn't make him a bad person. It just makes him a vulnerable one, and that vulnerability is something you don't see portrayed often in games, at least not in as charitable a way. The respect Firewatch affords its characters is what I've held most dear about the game, and it's why I foresee myself going back to it again and again in the future.
Superhot is one of the coolest games I've ever played. I try not to use that term very much, because cool means so many different things to different people. In this instance, I mean "cool" in the way that a really good action movie tends to be. This is a game of exquisite violence, portrayed through simple, but slick-looking visuals, all wrapped in a veneer of pseudohackerweirdness that holds everything together brilliantly.
This is another one I've gone back to a few times throughout the year. I can't get enough slow motion murder. I can't stop hucking bottles at dudes and taking their guns and then shooting them with their guns and sometimes maybe having a sword or a bat or whatever but who cares what I'm using because everything dies slowly and terribly and red-ly.
Superhot VR is extremely dope and worth checking out too, but standard-ass Superhot is still fantastic.
2016 is the year that irony poisoning finally claimed the minds of everyone who exists on the Internet. Irony folded in on itself so many times throughout the year that the very concept has all but blinkered out of this dimension into an unrecognizable Hellspace from which no half-baked Twitter gag could escape.
I say this mostly to frame the fact that the very idea of a nodding-and-winking, knowingly ironic Doom sounded like just about the least appealing thing in the world to me when I first started hearing grumblings that the game might actually be good. Some of that is also due to the game industry's spotty history poking fun at itself. A lot of games try to be funny, and are anything but. Doom is fucking hysterical in a way most comedy games rarely ever approach, and does so while still being an amazing Doom game. I have no idea how they pulled that off.
There's so much good shit in Doom. The art style is a perfect beefing-up of the hastily sketched heavy metal marginalia the earlier games dabbled in, the soundtrack is exactly the kind of "distortion-pedal-wielded-as-a-cudgel" nu-metal nonsense you'd want as you're tearing demons apart, and the gameplay is so frenetic, yet so approachable, that every battle made me feel like the most unbelievably talented demon slayer that has ever existed. And to top it all off, they made Doom lore fun, and did so without sacrificing any fondness for what came before. This isn't a dismissive handwaving toward what Doom used to be, but a celebration of just how ridiculous it all was in concept.
Yeah, the multiplayer's kinda bad, but god, who cares? This is that rare FPS that is recommendable entirely on the strength of its campaign. Everyone--and I mean everyone--should play this.
Darkest Dungeon is the only early access game I've really stuck with from its initial debut all the way up through its official release. And considering how completely, utterly mean Darkest Dungeon was to me throughout that time, it's a testament to just how enrapturing a game it is that I managed to stick with it.
Darkest Dungeon is a grind in every sense of the word. Its premise--you build and maintain a roster of heroes of various classes that are tasked with ridding a manor and its surrounding area of an ancient, cosmic horror accidentally unleashed by a creatively verbose narrator--is predicated on repeating tasks to build up your squad. That squad consists of adventure seekers you eagerly hire on, send into battle, and maybe even grow mildly attached to. That's a bad idea, because the specter of the grimmest, grisliest death haunts every corner of the game. When a hero dies, they're gone for good, and you're forced to repopulate the team with yet another newcomer. You throw these people into a potential meat grinder with every venture, and if the shuffling horrors, deranged cultists, or animalistic abominations don't get you, your own psyche might do the trick instead.
Darkest Dungeon's sanity system is where the game's Lovecraftian themes really come together. Heroes each have a stress meter that steadily builds as you explore the procedurally generated dungeons, ticking up in moments of combat or ill-fortune. If the meter gets all the way up to 100, that hero reaches a breaking point. Sometimes things break good, inspiring a hero to do better and positively impact their team. More often, a problematic trait pops up, causing them to become selfish or cowardly, sometimes even cause harm to themselves. Even worse, if that stress never gets alleviated, it can max out at 200, causing a potential death from stress itself.
Maybe it's not the most generous portrayal of mental health, but it's not a whimsical one either. Horrible things are happening to these people over and over again, and it stands to reason that these battles would leave their mark. That stress factor makes the fights far more harrowing than they would be if you were merely monitoring health bars. Sometimes death comes in unexpected places, out of a scenario you're absolutely sure you've got in a bag. It can feel unfair, downright infuriating even. But that's the game. You're creeping through overgrown woods and crumbling ruins, working your way past brutally violent, unspeakably awful things, straight into the mouth of Hell itself. Everything you do in Darkest Dungeon sounds like it would absolutely suck, and Red Hook does a terrific job of making the player feel every bit of that suck.
It's worth noting that there is a point where Darkest Dungeon does fall off a difficulty cliff. The endgame in particular is ludicrously hard, and you have to complete it three separate times. There is very little chance I'll ever get to that point, but I suppose I should never say never. For now, I'm content to return to this cursed hamlet every once in a while, go on a run or two, build up some stats, remove a few afflictions, and inch my way toward sending this plague back to the wretched place from whence it came. Progress is achingly slow, and sometimes I'm unsure my heart can take yet another failed run. Yet I press on, because no matter how insurmountable the nightmare might seem, succumbing to its whims is the only path to guaranteed defeat. As long as I keep pressing forward, there's always a chance.
The horror can't win. It mustn't.
Hitman is a series about creativity in murder. There's a plot, sure, and a nominal structure, especially in the earlier games, but in the end, we come back to Hitman because IO Interactive is exceedingly talented at designing interesting, ridiculous playgrounds filled with myriad opportunities for extinguishing the light behind some poor NPC's eyes. This year's Hitman is the purest distillation of this design ethos IO has ever produced, and it's an incredible achievement.
It's really the sheer amount of variety in Hitman that makes it so much better than the previous games. Each downloadable stage is enormous, filled with so many unique and ludicrous opportunities to off your targets. It's a game where failure is half the fun, just to see how many different ways things can go hilariously awry.
A while back, I remember having a brief conversation with Merritt K, based on something she tweeted.
my favorite videogame character? it's steven hitman. i love his classic phrase, 'it's pronounced hit-min! this is a big misunderstanding!'— merritt k (@merrittk) March 18, 2016
That got me along a line of thinking that made me want a pratfall-heavy, purely comedic Hitman-like game, where the main character can't stop bumbling into horrifying murder scenarios. I hadn't played this Hitman yet when we had that exchange, and little did I know how close this game actually comes to that. Yeah, you're still Agent 47, so there's a degree of capability there that prevents him from turning into a full-on Jerry Lewis pratfall machine. But depending on the player, there's ample opportunity to fuck up in truly astounding ways, as several members of our staff have demonstrated throughout the year. I couldn't find the comment to link it here, but someone on this site recently described it as "reverse Clue", which is among my favorite descriptions of anything ever.
I am legally required to also address the episodic nature of Hitman, since that is what everyone talks about when discussing the game. I think it is good, and was the right choice for this game. That is all I have to say about that.
Hitman rules. Here's hoping for an even better season 2.
It's really weird to have two great non-plastic instrument rhythm games released in the United States in a single year. It's even weirder to love one of them so much, that it very nearly took my top slot. But man, did I ever love Thumper.
Thumper is precisely what it purports itself to be. It is a game of rhythmic violence, an experience that is as much about white-knuckle tension as it is the psychedelic assault on the player's senses. You are a space scarab, of the Journey album cover ilk, and you are on a path to God only knows what. The path itself is a nightmare of cosmic obstacles and gigantic, pulsating heads that seem less-than-interested in allowing you safe passage to oblivion. The controls, deceptively simple as they are, require precise timing, especially given the speed at which you are traveling.
Christ, that speed. That deserves its own paragraph.
Thumper is breakneck fast, so fast that, if you're not rhythm game experienced, the pace of it may overwhelm you from the get-go. But a little practice and focus goes a long way. The game is great about doling out its increasingly complex visual language over time. You learn to predict the turns, to sense the patterns, to lock in with the time signature of the stage. Locking in with Thumper's unusual rhythms is satisfying in a way that games so rarely manage.
I haven't quite beaten Thumper yet. I've been working on the last boss for a bit, anxious about completing it, mostly because I'm not ready for it to be over. I know there's a harder mode awaiting me, and I've got plenty of low scores I'd like to clean up. This is one of those games I know I'll keep coming back to in perpetuity. I never want to stop. I want to forever be racing into the abysm, screaming toward whatever awaits me on the other side. If what awaits me turns out to just be more Thumper, then all the better.
Splatoon was the first competitive multiplayer shooter to really get my attention in a long, long time. Overwatch was the game that knocked Splatoon completely out of my regular rotation. It is the game that consumed my 2016, squeezing countless hours that could have been better spent living my life in any number of far more beneficial ways. I didn't play Overwatch so much as live it, and whatever regrets I have about that are mostly in deference to how polite society tends to feel about people spending too much time playing video games. I will perform this modicum of regret for you if it means you will leave me alone and allow me to go back to playing Overwatch.
The phenomenon around Overwatch has been incredible to watch, but it's one of the few instances where I feel like the fervent fandom is entirely deserved. The characters are a wonderful, goofy array of personalities (horrendous one-liners not withstanding), each with a finely tuned set of unique abilities that, when set against one another, result in some incredibly exciting action. Surprising, too. That was the best thing about Overwatch for me this year. Getting good at it was satisfying, to be sure, but mostly I loved watching other people's clips of their nutso plays of the game, their ludicrous bendings of the understood uses of their character abilities in unexpected ways.
It's a game where I found at least one character I could play in every category. Soldier: 76's "Mr. First-Person Shooter" mechanics always seem to work in my favor when we're down an attacker; Mei and Torbjorn were great introductions to playing effective defense--so effective, that I never stopped playing them; learning D.Va has resulted in some truly outstanding matches filled with rocket boost rammings off of cliffs, and truly salty eliminations at the end of my trusty pistol; and Zenyatta, my beautiful, perfect orb son, how could I forget the pure joy I've felt throughout the year as I healed my teammates, and shredded my enemies with weaponized Zen?
The new additions to the game throughout the year have been solid, the holiday stuff has been neat too--that Halloween brawl was a particular highlight--and I appreciate Blizzard restraining its additional costs to cosmetic elements (that said, FUCK blind boxes). It's a game that feels positioned to remain a dominant topic of conversation for years to come, and that's even apart from the abundance of erotic fantasies projected onto the game by fans.
That's another fascinating element. I don't delve too deeply into online game fandoms very often, but given how much time I spent with Overwatch this year, I ended up absorbing a lot of it without even trying. I kinda love how passionate people are about this Saturday Morning Cartoon-ass world, and even though it's established canon that nobody in Overwatch fucks, I respect the ships. You enjoy the thing how you want to enjoy the thing. No judgment here.
It's worrisome that Blizzard is now starting to branch out into genres that hover closer to my personal tastes. Hearthstone still syphons off more hours of my life than I'd like to admit, and I don't know that Overwatch is going to regress any time soon either. I hope their next game is like a JRPG or something so I can at least get a break. In the meantime, I can hear my robot child, my perfect, good orbsman calling to me. It's time to unleash some zen on some motherfuckers. I guess I'll put off the post-GOTY coma for at least another hour or two. See you all out there on the field of battle.