Janine Hawkins is a games critic based in sunny Canada who enjoys Style Savvy and third-person shooters with equal gusto. You can find her on Twitter @bleatingheart, or catch her on video at streamfriends.tv.
Normally when I reflect on the games I played in a given year, my favourites don’t have all that much in common. There’ll be the ones that told amazing stories, the ones that pulled off some fabulous technical feat, the ones that scratched some itch just right. At best there’s some overlap, where here and there the Venn diagrams connect and exceptional games really shine. But this year I realized that my favourite games of 2016--the ones I couldn’t put down or that kept me thinking of them long after they ended--all have something very specific in common. They all have, at some point, swallowed me whole. It’s not that they all deeply immersed me and they’re also not necessarily “addictive", but these are all games that I piled onto myself like warm winter bedding. Whether it was spread out over the course of a rough month or a palette cleanser during one of those battery-recharging kinds of weekends, these games subsumed me… And given the kind of year 2016 has been, that adds up.
I don’t typically have a lot of patience for games that I’m bad at, which is as strong an endorsement as I could ever give Pocket Card Jockey. I’ve squandered so many good hands, and I’ve lost so many races. In dentist's offices and on busses, in bed and while minding something on the stove. Sometimes I win, mostly I lose, but still I come back. I keep throwing handfuls of idle and anxious time into it, trying desperately to get my terrible little garbage horse a few trophies for his terrible little garbage horse mantle. Even if I’m destined to be the worst card jockey in the admittedly short history of card jockeys, at least I’m having a good time.
It takes time to play Mystic Messenger properly, and for a while I wasn’t sure how much I was willing to give. I came back day after day, rolling my eyes at the heavy-handed and impatient approach to flirtation the game offers. And yet I grew increasingly invested. In a game centered on romance it speaks volumes than an unromanceable character’s route became a fan-favourite, but that’s the case with the industrious, staid, and wonderful Jaehee. There’s no awkward flirtation with her, no dialogue choices that swing between obsessive to aloof. Jaehee’s story is hard but hopeful, and the interaction with that character (even the one-sided faux phone calls in the middle of the night) made me glad I saw it through.
I’m not an Overwatch evangelist. I don’t play competitively--hell, I don’t even play versus humans. I’m not sure if I main anyone, for that matter. That’s kind of the beauty of playing against bots, right? You don’t have to sacrifice your ego to experiment (or be an indecisive career amateur.) That’s how I play Overwatch, but that’s also why I was hesitant to include it on my list. I don’t feel like I play it the way I think someone who thinks it ranks “should” play it... And that’s a bullshit thing to say. I’d never accept someone else saying that the way they play something shouldn’t or doesn’t “count”, so why should I do it myself? The fact is that I still play Overwatch almost every day, sometimes for hours and sometimes just for a few minutes when I need to look at anything other than a word processor for a bit. It fits into my life so easily, doesn’t make me motion-sick (something that keeps me on the bench with quite a few other shooters) and is downright relaxing without the anxiety that can come from competition. It might not be the way everyone else enjoys it, but it works for me.
If Overwatch is my shoot-bots-and-chill game then Hitman might be the exact opposite. Usually I come to it when I’m really wired, really tense, and know full well that I shouldn’t. I know it’ll only make all of those things worse. I know it’s 4 a.m. and I can’t sleep and the smart thing to do would be to make some herbal tea and watch a little YouTube and then go back to bed. But instead of being smart like that, I get up and put on a nightshirt, creep to the computer, and fire up Hitman. I knock six people out with wrenches until I run out of wrenches. Wrenches, hammers, cans, bricks--they’re everywhere and yet there are never enough. Not for me. Not for my 4 a.m. assassination fugues. But the house is quiet, I’m the exact level of tired that I’m convinced makes me impulsive enough to get shit done, and I need to know what happens when you toss an exploding golf ball into a gelateria.
I shouldn’t enjoy The Tomorrow Children. It’s a game that explicitly keeps you from enjoying the fruits of your labour, whisking you off to another struggling town the moment you manage to restore the last. That should be demoralizing. Also it has slide puzzles, and those absolutely are demoralizing. But cooperation feels good. Perfectly distilled and isolated from how much teams themselves can suck, teamwork feels good too. It feels good in a very primitive, very human sense. The way other players phase in and out around you in The Tomorrow Children is odd and jarring at first, but it serves to facilitate that perfect, platonic ideal of cooperation; just a brief peek here and there to remind you that you’re all working together. Someone is mining and someone else is moving the ore and crystal to the bus stop and someone else will move it to storage when it arrives back in town. We’re all part of a well-oiled engine made of little girls in simple dresses working almost invisibly alongside each other. It gets us nowhere, but it gets us nowhere together.
Even as fashion becomes an increasingly important part of AAA games, it’s as tempting as ever to assume games like Style Savvy are insubstantial or exist only to pander to some niche we think we’re entitled to sneer at just a little bit. But frankly, I wish every series fought off complacency as actively as Style Savvy seems to, or treated its audience’s interests with as much respect. Maybe it just stands out because it’s part of a genre that’s often guilty of doing the exact opposite and assuming players don’t want or need more than what they’re already getting. With each installment Style Savvy has expanded and aspired to be different, to become deeper, to offer more and more options to its players. Fashion Forward deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that in particular. Also, an NPC asked me to give her a makeover so she’d look like a tube of toothpaste and honestly, I think she kind of pulls it off.
Even after all the praise it got, I slept on Abzû for months. When I did finally give it a chance, though, there was no stopping me. I consumed it in a single session, and even when I woke up the next morning, I still felt this persistent, lingering awe at what I’d seen. Comparing it to Journey almost sells it Abzû short. Abzû is flight and ballet. It’s music and nature. It’s a Fantasia suite made playable, from spirited start to roaring climax to soothing end. It’s a fucking experience, and one I know I’m going to revisit sooner rather than later.
Developers have been grasping at that Minecraft crown for a while now, but I sure wasn’t expecting a Dragon Quest game to be one of the ones that got it right. Frankly, it seemed a little misguided at first, but the makers of Dragon Quest Builders figured out something pretty crucial: Even if you can’t have full multiplayer, you can still have a community. You can still give players a purpose in building and gathering without leaving it 100% up to them to find their own inspiration. That may not be what everyone needs, but it’s exactly what I do. The most fun I’ve ever had with Minecraft, Terraria, or even Starbound has been as merely one part of a push-and-pull team. When I needed wood to build, I could trust the friend I was playing with to bring it to me. When he needed metal tools, he could trust me to forge them. It’s a simple thing to have NPCs ask favours of you as they toil away producing food and items for you in return, but that reciprocity goes a long way to making Dragon Quest Builders feel like way more than just another blocky sandbox.
It’s not that Stardew Valley is a close homage to one of my favourite game franchises ever, but that it improves on so much. Things I’d been dying to see added or changed in Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons for well over a decade, and even things I didn’t realize could be improved upon in the first place. It takes a lot more than cows and turnips to make farming RPGs really work, and Stardew Valley shows an understanding of that well beyond a surface-level admiration. Stardew more than lives up to the series’ that inspired it, but it remains to be seen whether those series’ can live up to Stardew going forward.
I had no hopes for Tokyo Mirage Sessions when it was assigned to me for review. I’d seen the trailers and I thought a popstar-infused SMT-meets-Fire Emblem was a novel idea, but if anything I was kind of dreading it. There are few things more arduous and unpleasant than playing a mediocre JRPG on a tight deadline, after all. Fortunately for me Tokyo Mirage Sessions turned out to be anything but mediocre. It keeps its turn-based combat from dragging with flashy action-heavy spectacles, sometimes triggered deliberately and sometimes completely random. Meanwhile, the story seldom hits a lull because the promise of a special scene or performance always feels like it’s just around the corner. It’s colourful and exciting and energetic and it’s a marvel that it never seemed to falter in that. Where I would have normally been relieved to finish a game and start working on my review, I walked out of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE ready to walk right back in again. I’ve managed to put off that second play-through for now, but someday I know I’ll need this flashy 50-hour jpop carnival in my life again. It’s just a matter of time.