Greg Kasavin is a writer and designer at Supergiant Games, the small independent studio behind Bastion, Transistor, and next year's Pyre. Prior to joining Supergiant, Greg worked at 2K Games, Electronic Arts, and GameSpot. He's @kasavin on Twitter.
This past year, I often found myself turning to games in my random bits of spare time on nights or weekends, not just for fun, or for my usual curiosity and desire to keep up with the latest, but to take my mind elsewhere. Games, of course, are much more than just an escape, though I've always, always valued them for this particular function they can serve. And, let me tell you, were they ever there for me during the past 12 months. As in years past, when it came time to round up my favorites of the year, I felt little choice but to multiply my list into several, to paint a more-complete picture of where my head was at with games in 2016. So: Stay a while, and listen! Whether you take it as a list of recommendations or a window to my carefree soul is up to you.
My Top 10 of 2016 I Didn't Play at All
These are what I think might be the best games I didn't get around to. I meant to play them, honest, but procrastinated for one reason or another despite them looking like they'd all be perfect for me. I highly recommend them to my future self and perhaps you.
10. Rise of the Tomb Raider
I thought Crystal Dynamics did a fantastic job with the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, and I heard consistently good things about this follow-up. I don't have a good reason for not having played it yet other than never quite feeling up to putting poor Lara through further peril on my accord.
Obsidian seems to have really found its footing with these narrative-rich computer RPGs that owe to the mid-'90s heyday of Black Isle Studios. I'm working on something like an RPG myself these days, so part of me wants to avoid playing other games in the genre, but I do want to get around to this soon.
I have to think hard about how come I haven't played the episodic Hitman games yet, which seem like such a great return to form for a series I loved in its heyday. At their best, the Hitman games have provided some of the most fascinating and open-ended game environments, rendered with fantastic style, detail, and dark humor. I think it's that the theme of Hitman doesn't feel as exotic to me as it once did, and seeing as right now I especially value games that take me away from reality, I find it harder these days to get into ones that remind me of it.
7. Salt and Sanctuary
I love the Souls series and I love great 2D action games, and this is basically that; plus I like the style and flair of Ska Studios' past work. So, I have no excuse for not having played this yet, other than, I was preoccupied with Dark Souls III at around the same time, and that game kicked my ass more than enough.
This big-hearted whimsical sci-fi action adventure from Double Fine looks like it turned out great, and I haven't played a good and proper Metroidvania since the excellent Axiom Verge. I found it really inspiring that this game spun out of Double Fine's internal "Amnesia Fortnight" thing, where members of the team pitch ideas to each other, then pick a couple to make real.
5. Quadrilateral Cowboy
I've kept myself in the dark about the latest from the creator of the memorable Thirty Flights of Loving and Atom Zombie Smasher, as I knew I would play it one day on the strength of those games. Why on Earth haven't I played this yet? Maybe it's that having worked on a cyberpunk game myself in recent years, a lot of my nerves there are still pretty raw.
A labor of love that spent years and years in the making, and an homage to the 16-bit platforms I used to play all the time in the '90s. I'm so glad this turn out so well from what I've heard, after all the time the small team that made it poured into it. I've just been waiting for the right moment and state of mind to throw myself into it.
3. Mafia III
My initial skepticism about the change of setting here from past Mafia games evaporated the instant I laid eyes on it. I really want to play this and bask in the story, atmosphere, and characters. As a fan of this series since the original, I was happy to see this one getting a lot of praise for a lot of reasons.
2. Dishonored 2
I feel ashamed at never having finished the original Dishonored, and further ashamed at not having played its sequel yet, when so much of what I love about games is right here. I adore the world of Dishonored and the open-ended way in which you can traverse its levels, so I really have no excuse here. Maybe I'm just jealous, or maybe I'll chalk this one to platform paralysis--didn't know whether to go for PC or PS4.
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Blood and Wine
Witcher 3, the RPG so good it makes me sad, apparently gets even better if that's even possible in this expansion. The Witcher 3 is such a stunning achievement in scope and quality. I can't explain why I haven't played this yet, other than it's comforting to know I have this 'in case of emergency, break glass' game available for when I desperately need to play something I just know I'm going to love.
My Top 10 of 2016 I Didn't Play Enough
I started on these but fell off for one reason or another, or am still in the middle of playing them now. Consider these my Honorable Mentions:
10. The Banner Saga 2
I really enjoyed the original, and was impressed with how this one picked right up where the first left off, taking into account some very big things that happened based on your choices at the end of the first. It's maybe a little bleak for me right this second though.
Great atmosphere and an innovative real-time conversation system made this right up my alley. Loved playing around with the in-game radio. Just a lot of good attention to detail and a cool tone. I should come back to this.
8. Dark Souls III
I ought to be better at these games by now but Dark Souls III just kept killing me. I wasn't being patient enough. Dark Souls teaches you a certain discipline and I have to come back to this once I've learned my lesson.
7. Zero Time Dilemma
The first two games in the Zero Escape series of visual novels were interesting and memorable for me, so I dove right into this one and found it engrossing almost immediately as when I got one of the game's many endings in mere seconds of beginning play. But I fell off, in part because it does such a good job of putting its cool cast of characters in terrible peril.
6. The Witness
I solved more than 100 puzzles in The Witness but still was just scratching the surface. It's a game I really wanted to see through to the end but when some of the puzzles got to the point where it was time to bust out graphing paper and the like, my feet went cold. Though, that island and its mysteries still call to me. It's a stunning game.
5. Hyper Light Drifter
This beautifully crafted, great-feeling action adventure turned out awesome from what I played. I had a chance to play near-final builds and got pretty far but just didn't get around to the finished version. It's a wonder to me that more games aren't built in this classic Zelda style, though few are as good as this one.
4. Fire Emblem Fates
This is one of my favorite game series, and this installment seemed very good at the least. But, to make a long story short, one of my damn kids busted the cartridge slot on my 3DS and I haven't been able to play this since. I'm still plotting my revenge.
3. Final Fantasy XV
What a weird and interesting game. I've started playing it and am fascinated by all its specific and surprising creative and design choices, and its imaginative world. I'm just not far enough in to have a feel for it yet but am glad it happened, and that it seems quite a bit better than Final Fantasy XIII.
2. The Last Guardian
This must have been one of the all-time most difficult games to create. "Hey, let's build believable-looking environments traversable by a little kid and a giant griffin, sometimes while one is crawling around on the back of the other!" It's an amazing feat, and despite whatever issues it has, working my way through it has felt very worth it thus far.
Blizzard is good at sweating the details, and knows better than just about any studio on the planet that execution quality matters more than anything else in games. So, sure enough, Blizzard made its first entry into the ultracompetitive multiplayer shooter market, as well as its first multiplatform game launch, look like it was easy. I admire it a lot but haven't played near enough. I spend too much time worrying about letting my team down and not enough time playing, no thanks to certain other fine Blizzard Entertainment products.
My Top 10 of 2016
OK, still here? With all that out of the way, here's my real top 10. These games I played plenty.
10. Pokémon GO
I'm pretty over it now, but I feel very grateful having jumped on this right at launch, and played it alongside my daughter for many weeks. It was just such an amazing confluence of different ideas that were so exciting together, and it felt phenomenal in a way unlike just about any other game I've ever seen.
9. Titanfall 2
I played this mainly for the single-player campaign, and really enjoyed the great controls and feel, but most of all the partner character in the robotic titan BT-7274. He's a good dude. Small details like getting to choose how to respond to him drew me into that world.
8. Clash Royale
While working on strategy games at EA, I worked with many smart people trying to figure out how to make strategy games fun and accessible without sacrificing depth, and Clash Royale truly nailed it. I played this every day for months until I forced myself to quit, cold turkey, though I would happily pick it up again. Don't make the mistake of dismissing this as just another cynical free-to-play game from the Clash of Clans people; some things are popular and successful because they're really that good.
7. Street Fighter V
I want to see the day when a fighting game is locked into the most viewed games on Twitch.tv, with the likes of other competitive games like Dota 2, League, Counter-Strike, and Hearthstone. Fighting games are the original competitive gaming genre, and the one thing they're lacking is the polished "games-as-service" infrastructure of these bigger competitive games. Street Fighter V really should have been the game to break through in this fashion. But even though it fell well short of that promise, the underlying gameplay I think is terrific, and has kept me coming back again and again, like Street Fighter always has.
This so-called "rhythm violence" game is a work of art that brought me a sense of peace like little else this year. Its intense gameplay demands all your focus, and put me in a meditative state, my mind clear of anything but Thumper's brooding and complex soundtrack, and fascinating, surreal visuals. More than that, it was the right game at the right time for me, a game about hurtling uncontrollably and far too quickly into the unknown.
I would have played Campo Santo's debut game no matter what it was, knowing it was from two of the creators of the first season of Telltale's excellent Walking Dead series. Firewatch turned out to be the perfect antidote to The Walking Dead while still capturing the personal nuance I was hoping for. I really enjoyed being in that world, with its flirtatious and wistful tone, so reflective of what we want in life but just can't have. It stuck with me, which is the best that I can say for any game, really.
I thought this was even better than Limbo, Playdead's previous game. Its provocative story is presented without a single world, and its presentation is impeccable. Like Limbo, this is a game that I expect will look and sound as stunning as it does today 20 years for now. And some of the choices made, some of the decisions around the art and the design, suggest courage I found awe-inspiring both as a fan of the game and as a game developer who struggles to bring his own ideas to life.
3. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
The highest pinnacle of craft from a triple-A studio. I've been in game development for about 10 years now and have only the smallest inkling of how this was made. Technically and artistically stunning, terrific writing and characters, fantastic set pieces... Naughty Dog is on a different level than pretty much everyone else. Also joins a very short list of games that my wife has found interesting over the years. She was just as drawn in by these characters as I was.
The gleeful, cathartic heavy-metal anger of Doom both brought me back to my days playing the original in high school and made for the best shooter campaign I've played in what feels like years. This is a textbook case in how to reboot a classic game appropriately; not by copying it, not by adapting it to the whims of the present, but by re-capturing its spirit to make the experience feel like new again. As a bonus, it packs some surprisingly good and efficient storytelling.
1. The King of Fighters XIV
Look, it would have been easy to throw this game way down this list, but to be blunt: I think this game won't get as many awards as it deserves, so I'm giving it this one.
The Neo Geo is my all-time favorite game system, and I once counted myself a huge fan of the King of Fighters series, among several other great fighting game series. I thought those days were long gone, and when I first saw this game revealed in trailers, my hopes for it were, let's just say, not high. But, as the day of its launch approached, more and more of what I saw and read about this game made me optimistic for it, and when I finally played it, it was even better than I hoped. It has a huge and interesting cast of characters, plenty of cool charm, and some of the best most experienced fighting game designers behind it. It's just been a real pleasure to play and to learn, and the developers have continued nurturing and maintaining it since launch. It rekindled my love of SNK fighting games, and of all the games released this year it's nearest and dearest to my heart.
My Top 1 I Played Too Much
1. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
My #1 game of 2014 and 2015 was in my #1 game of 2016, as well. At this point there exists no single game I've played as much as this one. The lens through which I now see card games and their inherent randomness is a lens through which I've come to understand the world around me. I play after I've put my kids to bed and am waiting for them to get to sleep. I play on weekend mornings with my coffee. I watch Hearthstone streamers when I'm doing the dishes or getting ready to pass out for the night. I can lose myself in the game, and I can lose myself in the community around the game. Like games themselves, it's always there for me, and gives me a place to go that I look forward to.