Oli De-Vine and Phil Duncan are the cofounders of Ghost Town Games, the two-person studio behind co-operative cook 'em up Overcooked. Prior to starting Ghost Town Games they worked at Frontier Developments in Cambridge, UK. On twitter they are @thilduncan @olide_vine.
2016 is a weird year for us because it's the year we released our first grown-up, on-our-own-two-feet independent game and entered the wider world of the people talking about games on shiny websites with fancy graphics. As such, our choices probably don't reflect fairly on, say, games like Hyper Light Drifter (which I only started playing yesterday and didn't feel it was fair to include) or DOOM (which I want to play on PC but I think I've partly melted my heat sink). Also I should call out Planet Coaster, which we would have been making this year in a slightly alternate universe, but we have not included in our list because it felt like cheating.
Here are our thoughts on Best of 2016 though. There are two of us here doing this, so we're speaking in first person as a slightly inconsistent hive mind:
I'm holding a giant energy shield, which is gradually cracking under the force of the incoming barrage from a man dressed as the grim reaper, and I'm just hoping it'll hold out long enough for my friend (who is a cowboy) to dispatch the menace. Overwatch is a gleeful co-operative shooter with a dizzying roll call of characters, each with varied overlapping mechanics and play styles to experiment with. But what I really enjoyed about the game was the transition I felt from my first few rounds to my 100th round and beyond. Learning how each new character works, and then discovering how their mechanics compliments those of your team mates, is a really rewarding experience. At least I think that's my opinion. As a self-confessed Overwatch junkie I can't tell if that's me talking, or the happy chemicals it releases every time the payload makes its way safely to its destination.
There's been a lot written about Uncharted 4 already, so instead of repeating everything that has already been said, here are some words which do not reflect ours or anyone else's opinion on the game: Uncharted 4 is a fiercely ugly game, the performances are wooden and unconvincing, and the set pieces are bafflingly mundane. The team at Naughty Dog clearly put no effort into this latest outing which has been reflected in its woeful sales.
Inside is a wonderful puzzle-platformer set in one of the most inventive and surreal landscapes you'll ever have the joy (and misery) of traversing. There's a lot to love about the game, the art and colour pallet work so well, the environments are stark and absorbing, and the lighting is spectacular. As a designer, what I was mainly drawn to were the mechanics of the game. As well as drawing from more abstract scenarios as they did in Limbo, Playdead used a lot of real-world mechanics in Inside to great effect. At the start of the game there's a short section where you're being chased by a dog, while swimming the dog is seen to be steadily closing the gap between you and its teeth, but when you reach land it's all too apparent how much faster it is than you. It's a small moment but it's one which the designers build on gradually as you advance, sowing these little seeds of knowledge about which you later have to draw on: Can't make it across that gap? Maybe you can lure the dog into that pool of shallow water it will slow it down just enough to... you get the idea.
What can you say about No Man's Sky? I'll tell you what: nothing. Too much has already been said, so maybe you should just sit on your hands or walk away from the keyboard. When we finished development on Overcooked we treated ourselves to an extremely rare afternoon off. Oli had his PlayStation 4 at my house (also our office), so we sat playing NMS on two separate screens trying not to think about onions or frying pans for a while. The experience of exploring an alien planet, fixing up my ship, and then launching off into the stars was the perfect way to wind down after 18 extremely long months. It's a quiet, contemplative space adventure with a kick-ass soundtrack.
The reason Overcooked exists is due to the countless hours Ghost Town Games has collectively wasted over the years playing any co-op game we can get our hands on (Phil has three brothers, Oli has two, so much of our youths were spent playing local multiplayer games with the aforementioned brothers). Lovers is one of those classic "why-didn't-I-think-of-that?!?" ideas, a cooperative game where you're working together to pilot a ship as well as juggling the various different systems available. It shares a lot of similar DNA to Overcooked in that there are often more tasks on offer than there are players and often good communication is more important than your respective abilities to accurately blast aliens. With more and more online-only multiplayer games occupying the space, games like Lovers (and hopefully Overcooked) help remind us of the unique joy of playing a game with your friends and family in the same place.
What I love about Oxenfree is its absolute success at capturing that conversational aspect of a point and click adventure, while simultaneously liberating itself from any of the normal mechanics. In some ways it's touching on a Telltale-style adventure, but somehow still feels nothing like that. Its Scooby-doo-esque, famous-five-goes-to-the-Eldritch-darkness story is genuinely creepy horror and told in a way that is wonderfully innovative.
We don't have strong AI. I know we don't have strong AI. I know this machine isn't really talking to me, but when I played Event I sort of forgot? Event is game of hashing out a debate with a seemingly psychotic AI with the aim of opening the next door right now please. At least that's how I played it, maybe some people just get on with it swimmingly. It's excellent anyway, and had me genuinely immersed in both the world and having long, slightly fruitless arguments I usually reserve for toasters which burn my bread.
There's this phrase, "Walking Simulator," that we throw around like it's a bad thing? Firewatch is a lot of simulated walking, and it's excellent. I feel we're at this very exciting point with these games, beginning at Dear Esther, Ethan Carter, and Gone Home, where the feeling of a living animated world, and the feeling of having company, has crept back in, but in a way that doesn't undermine what this genre does well, which for me is tell atypical game stories other mechanics would prevent. Firewatch is definitely part of that progress and a must play.
I feel some slight trepidation writing about The Witness, almost as if Jonathan Blow is going to peer over my shoulder and say "Wow, you didn't understand what I was trying to say at all." I love the loneliness of The Witness, that feeling of being completely isolated on this strange island which is at once alien, and yet has also clearly been designed for you. There's so much to be said about the parallels between game mechanics and language, most of which wouldn't fit into this measly paragraph, but needless to say it is a game I enjoyed very much and one which asks and answers many questions about the nature of game design.
I've only visited the virtual reality a few times, but from my few snatched jaunts I can already recommend it as an enjoyable destination. Unlike our boring vanilla reality, the virtual reality has much looser rules regarding transport, gravity and hygiene. The food isn't nearly as nourishing, and the resolution is a little lower than real life, but the weather is much more consistent and the consequences for murder seem much less severe.