Lorne Lanning is the co-founder of development studio Oddworld Inhabitants, and creator of the Oddworld series of video games. The studio is currently at work on Oddworld: Soulstorm, a remake of Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus. He's @lorne_lanning on Twitter.
When we got the call from Giant Bomb to do a game of the year list, I accepted right away. And then I sat down to write it, and realized that I was coming up short. It turns out, being right in the middle of developing Soulstorm means that I haven’t actually had time to play everything I wanted to this year. So I called our UK team--we’ve got guys there that are tasked with keeping up with new releases and playing as much as possible--and asked if they could help. This list is kind of a collaborative effort between me and Peter in the UK. Assume all the really cool stuff that you love too is mine and all the stuff you furiously disagree with is his.
Limbo made some really great artistic choices, so the follow-up was always going to be something to watch out for. Even though Inside’s artistic approach was slightly more grounded in realism, it still managed to find an utterly unique style that perfectly captured what a bizarre, oppressive world this was. The narrative backed that up too, touching on themes and ideas that are obviously close to our hearts at Oddworld without ever needing to explicitly push those ideas on the player. This meant that everyone could take their own meaning from the game’s progression and left a piece of wonderful art that inspired discussion, debate and delight among our whole team.
2. The Witness
I think Jonathan Blow is one of the smartest guys in game dev, and his puzzles, which appeared simple but really mined the depths of their core concept, kept us glued to this for hours. Not all of us were able to dedicate the time needed to finish everything on offer here, but those on the team that did made me jealous with their descriptions of how well produced and layered the concept got as the player discovered more and more of the world. For me, the island itself was the star of this game and the way every conceivable angle and viewpoint was carefully positioned to offer the player surprise after surprise was just wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more carefully constructed environment in a game, where everything is placed so deliberately to serve a purpose.
What a wonderful celebration of downbeat Americana this was. It was a fairly subtle, almost mundane story, but delivered with such class that it just captured my attention completely. The delivery from the voice actors was perfect, too, so that their growing relationship seemed natural and utterly believable. Again, it was the artistic approach that really stood out to me. They crafted a stunning landscape that really seemed to come alive as you got to explore around it. I actually wish they would have encouraged the player a little more to just hang out in the woods. It was all there to see, if you just steered off the beaten path, but I think some players would have missed a lot of it because they were chasing objectives--and that’s a real shame.
Who could have predicted that Doom would be this good? I mean, we knew it was coming from a great team, and it’s obviously such a well respected series with such history that there’s a lot for them to work with, but it ended up being way better than anyone could have hoped for. Nobody saw it coming. Everything was just tonally perfect, from the celebration of the main character, to his utter rejection of the adulation he was being shown, it was exactly the approach I wanted to see in a Doom game in 2016, without me even knowing that’s what I wanted until they did it. And that soundtrack too--just perfectly suited, timed, delivered. Of course, we know a little bit about reimagining a ‘90s classic for a modern age, so we also felt a little pang of pride in seeing this so well received.
The way this game was delivered was an interesting experiment to watch. I think a lot of people had a knee-jerk bad reaction to the news that this would be episodic but, as it turned out, it was the perfect way to experience this game. Knowing that you only have this one area at a time to explore, you would really explore it properly. If they had all been there from the start I think I might have pushed on through them to see the next level, and that would have meant missing parts of these brilliantly complex maps.
At Oddworld, we know a little bit about holding on to a project to make sure it ends up being the game you want it to be. We’ve also benefitted from great fans who have stuck with us through the long periods of time game development can take, so it’s great to see fans of The Last Guardian rewarded with such a beautiful, emotional game. This game inspires empathy in a way that is truly difficult to achieve, and it invokes a sense of scale and vulnerability that is a rare treat in modern games. I also loved the narrator’s dialogue, which helps to gently steer the player in the right direction during that critical learning phase of gameplay.
7. Rez Infinite
Rez is visionary in so many ways. It was built for VR 15 years before VR was a viable concept so to see it come back around in such a wonderfully realized package is very exciting. The remake of the original works brilliantly in VR, but the new stage that was made specifically for headsets proves that creative minds can overcome the challenges of this new format. Surely we have to see a full game of Rez, designed specifically for VR, very soon?
8. Dishonored 2
I love the kinda steampunk, watchmaker aesthetic to Dishonored’s world. It’s taken a well loved style and given it a little unique twist that really sets it apart. We’re currently designing level layouts for Soulstorm, so that’s something I’ve been looking at and focusing on a lot in the other games I play.
Dishonored 2 is great for many reasons but, for me, the Clockwork Mansion level is just a really exceptional piece of complex design. The way it moves around the player, offering new paths or creating traps is often mesmeric. It would be so easy to design yourself into a corner that traps the player but I never found that to be a problem. I would love to know how many hours they spent testing it from every possible angle--however many it was, it was totally worth it.
I couldn’t help but see Overcooked as a metaphor for game development. You’ve got a number of people, all working together to reach a common goal. With a diverse set of ingredients, they need to satisfy a hungry public and their constantly shifting requirements or face total ruin. There’s also a lot of shouting at other team members who just won’t bring the tomato to the bench quickly enough, which we try to avoid here so I guess the analogy doesn’t match up perfectly.
10. VR games
Okay, so this is a cheat because it’s a whole platform rather than a single game but I think it’s the most exciting thing to happen in games this year. Seeing consumers finally get their hands on VR platforms and the games that come with them has been refreshing. Not only for the new experiences that people have had but for the energy it breeds in the game design scene.
We’ve seen a lot of traditional styles of games being translated to work in a VR setting, and that’s great. Games like EVE:Valkyrie, Driveclub VR, Space Pirate Trainer, and Holopoint all take concepts that a player is very familiar with and make them more immersive with this new technology. Tilt Brush and Medium offer new ways to be creative. Animations like Allumette show that stories can be told in very personal, emotional ways. But, for me, the most exciting thing has been the exploration of new ideas around the fringe of that.
I think the next big frontier for VR to overcome is the sense of isolation that the headsets can introduce. The most joyous experiences have already shown that, far from a solitary experience, VR is capable of offering vast social opportunities. The Playroom collection on PlayStation VR shows how the closed-in view that headsets offer can be used to expand on local multiplayer concepts and in a way that actually makes that enclosed space behind the VR screen a key element in a very social experience.
Games like Rec Room take a set of fun multiplayer situations and throw them all together around a social hub that is actually where the real joy of the game lies. Hover Junkers is another multiplayer game that relies on well-known concepts but only so that it can introduce the real spark of genius, which is that you’re not alone in this experience.
In many ways, the first rush of releases for VR platforms have all been experimental. Ways to see what the player can process and what the market will gravitate towards. It’s logical that developers would use well-known game concepts to anchor the player but expanding on those concepts is what will really make the development scene exciting and we’re already seeing that kind of exploration taking place. Next year could be even more interesting.