Alx Preston is the creator of Heart Machine and Hyper Light Drifter. He remains mostly alive and clackity clacking away at a keyboard on new projects. You can follow him on Twitter or Instagram via @HeartMachineZ.
Even though 2016 has been completely exhausting--we released our game, my chronic (sometimes debilitating) illnesses reared their heads, and society as a whole has been going through tumultuous times--I managed to sneak in several incredible gems to subsist off of and reorient my sanity in smaller doses. A few games even managed to capture me entirely off-guard and thrill my bones into jiggly noodles.
I was a Team Fortress 2 player for years; I had racked up hundreds of hours and a wealth of hats, so I thought Overwatch would be a natural fit. Unfortunately my initial reaction was unkind: it struck me as a shallow “me-too”, with scattershot character and level designs. After allowing myself more time with the game, however, it clicked. It became my go-to stress-reliever for evenings.
Everything is exquisitely crafted, from the sound design, the player models, the levels, to the UI and UX. Even the character-driven shorts they release have a level of polish that’s easy on the eyes. (Which helps to forgive the sometimes clunky dialogue and predictable narratives.) It’s increasingly rare to find this amount of polish in a game.
Every character is endearing; even the immensely thick-headed lines of McCree (bless your stupid cowboy heart) and ultra-edgelord attitude and attire of Reaper (bless your shredded vocal chords and absolute commitment to your lifestyle). The world Blizzard has crafted is engaging and cohesive in a way I didn’t initially grasp, and the fact that the community has responded so positively to all these new personalities has only further bolstered their likability. Blizzard itself deserves major credit for how they embrace and interact between their community on a continued basis; it’s impressive and uncommon to see this level of care.
I’ve not been able to stop playing since release, which says a lot for a game that makes me violently claw at my face at the end of so many frustrating competitive matches.
I don't think I'm alone in saying I didn't expect much out of this game. Considering it was in development for years, went through an entire reboot, and was made by a team without John Carmack and plenty of the other id crew, Doom had a huge wall of doubt to climb.
Instead, it super-punched through that wall--blood, hundreds of bones and buckets of guts flying in every direction--then turned around and said “Fuck you, wall” and put a cigarette out on it.
Most satisfying game moment(s) of the year: every time you run up on a demon and blow it into bloody, chunky mist bits.
Everything in this game is great. Fantastic job, id.
I’m aware I’m late to the party and this is a 2015 game; I didn't have time to play this during production of Hyper Light. (‘Whatever’ to your rules!) I finally got around to completing the game this month, and boy is it great.
Undertale has the most endearing cast of characters I’ve experienced in a game. This is largely due to the incredibly strong comedic writing of Undertale (on par with Portal 2); I found myself laughing out loud, by myself, numerous times throughout. It also showcases several clever, deceptively simple and flexible “battle” mechanics that made each encounter feel entirely unique, which worked brilliantly to build each character.
Undertale made me smile more than any other game this year. Plus, I can't stop listening to this damned soundtrack.
Raw mechanical bliss. Harsh, haunting soundtrack. Immensely satisfying sound design. Plinks and plangs that make my brain scream with joy. A game I can’t put down once it grips my wretched heart with stupid little alien beetle claws.
Thumper feels like an interactive fractal desktop wallpaper from 1999 that’s yelling at me.
Yes, it’s basically a remix of the Greatest Hits from previous Souls games. True, it had some stand-out battles, some streamlining of mechanics and the interface, some neat new tracks and locations to explore. Of course, the story was still convoluted and obscured, even a bit melodramatic.
It’s still Dark Souls. I can never slake my thirst for abuse, apparently.
Inside is a game that took its time to get finished (about 6 years), and it shows. It’s a powerful and expertly crafted experience. The animation is exceptionally fluid and lavish; the environment is immaculate and communicates a wealth of information. Building a narrative purely through environmental storytelling is really challenging, and they succeeded overwhelmingly.
The audio design and atmosphere are so good I just want to live (read: die in a horrifying way) and sob silently in this dreary, fucked up world for a while. Well done, Playdead.
This game has an even longer history than Inside, having taken the better part of a decade for the developers to complete. It’s heartwarming to see them pull through that cycle with such a strong debut.
The game has a great cast of characters, exceptionally fitting OST, and ridiculously detailed sprite work. Just look at those explosions and the hand-animated foliage. The insane amount of labor that's been poured into this game makes me shiver a bit when I consider the hours spent on each enemy, background, character.
The multiplayer maps have excellent level design. The progression system is satisfying and contains thoughtful design changes. Above all else, though, it feels (and sounds) great to shoot dudes and blow up Titans. Excited to see how they push the next campaign.
Another beautifully crafted experience by a small team, gorgeous in every department (such a strong artistic direction) and precisely executed without frills or nonsense. Firewatch made me want to go hiking and camp in the backwoods, then I remembered my severe allergy to the outdoors. Also, I miss my old pet turtle.
Jonathan Blow and his team succeeded in providing the player with true epiphanies through gameplay--a significant feat. It’s not just simple “aha” moments you get in most puzzle games, disparately peppered throughout: it is a deeper and fuller understanding of each consecutive puzzle and the context in which they apply themselves to the world they occupy.
The art direction and design is my favorite of the year. It’s a beautiful, streamlined visual style that works in tandem with the sparse narrative with fascinating and clever visual tricks built into specific puzzles and the wider exploration of the dense island.
I’m not usually one for line or grid puzzles, but The Witness really drew me in, had me wishing there was a hotline to connect to for assistance manned by Rubeus Hagrid...
I’ll stop now.
Abzû was the most lovely experience I had with a game this year. The game came out during a period of incredible stress (right after months of porting and releasing HLD on PS4 and Xbox One) so the soothing pace, gameplay, and atmosphere came at the perfect time.
It helps that Abzû is a stunning artist showcase--remarkable compositions, fantastic color palettes, well-considered wildlife and breathtaking scenery in every location. It’s not often you experience such a lush environment, particularly underwater, so it was a rare treat to simply swim and exist in this world.
Congrats to Matt and his crew on such an artistic achievement.