Soha E leads diversity and inclusion initiatives in the games industry and is an on-again off-again writer. In a previous life she dabbled in game design tools and guest lectured in universities across North America about DIY game-making. She also shitposts entirely too much on Twitter.
This year was a one of oldies for me. I replayed Mass Effect 2 for the sixth time, Fallout: New Vegas for the fifth, and spiraled into anime hell with Persona and Danganronpa titles. Skyrim’s Special Edition rekindled a flame wherein I set out to dominate my free time with mods, and the Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition bit into my schedule with a vengeance. Despite those hundreds of hours whizzing by, I still managed to find time for new titles and wanted to share my personal favorites in no particular order.
First, I need to give a quick toast to the games released in 2016 that will have to wait for another time; here’s to Ladykiller in a Bind, Oxenfree, Watch_Dogs 2, Dishonored 2, Firewatch, and The Last Guardian. May the terrible time management of my games backlog meet you in 2017, or sometime over this holiday break.
The single player campaign is one of the most impressive experiences of game design I’ve played in a long-ass time. Piloting giant robots in a sci-fi story with a color palette outside of brown and grey? Yes. A chapter dedicated to incredibly crafted, mind boggling time travel? YES. The giant robots care about you and are your friends? YES!!!! It’s like Respawn figured out exactly what people want out of shooters and then put all of their heart into it. As I write this, I’ve yet to try multiplayer, but it’s next on the list after replaying the single player campaign a few more times.
The remake of Harvester Games’ 2009 title Downfall released on Valentine’s Day with voice acting and a completely new art direction similar to the studio’s more popular title The Cat Lady. It was lovely to spend a day dedicated to romance watching Joe and Ivy Davis’ marriage crumble as they try to make sense of a mysterious hotel packed with monsters, gore, and repressed memories. Harvester’s themes revolve heavily around mental illnesses, which at some points can feel a bit tropey, but Downfall deeply resonated with my love of body horror and non-linear narratives.
When people ask if I liked the controversial No Man’s Sky, I tend to respond with, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean you will too.” What I enjoyed most about this game was probably the most disappointing aspect for many who looked forward to it. Uncorking a bottle of wine and listening to a Lana del Rey album while roaming around a sci-fi Proteus is my idea of a good time, which makes this more of a personal, meditative tool than a game with excellent gameplay or a captivating story. Once I got over my assumptions of what No Man’s Sky was supposed to be, I found myself enjoying the scenery more and caring less about its many faults.
Gaming Pixie’s She Who Fights Monsters has been remastered to add improved graphics, music, an expanded story including new endings, and more. The game is about a girl named Jenny surviving a week with her alcoholic father. You guide her through both peaceful hideouts and horror-filled hallways, presenting the juxtaposition of a daughter’s love and fear of an abusive parent. It’s a surreal game packed with a large heart and a difficult subject, which makes me respect the creator even more for untangling it. You can find the game on itch.io.
This game is haunting, nerve-wracking, suffocating, and a complete masterpiece. Playdead returns their German expressionist aesthetics with a twist that has crept under my skin like very, very few games have. There’s not much else I can say about Inside without giving too much away, and going into it with little knowledge is part of what made my experience feel like a punch to the gut. Prepare with nearby Xanax or a glass of wine and play this game.
"Farm simulator" wasn’t a label or genre of game I thought I’d be into, but after 80 hours of Stardew Valley I’m happy to have been proven wrong. This game exudes a charm missing in many blockbuster titles, and to see it coming out of a one-person studio is still beyond my comprehension. Nothing about this game feels incomplete or rushed, and it hooked me in a way that Harvest Moon never did.
I’m not entirely sure I even know what happened in this game. There are many interpretations about the wordless story of Virginia where spaces are disconnected and storytelling is largely implicit. For a game that lasts about 2 hours, I didn’t think I would be playing through it again, but a second or third play-through is almost mandatory for players to decode the game’s events. I highly recommend this game for folks who love ambiguous endings and early 90s uncanny nostalgia. (Also, the soundtrack is incredible.)
Kitty Horrorshow is one of those developers who is infuriatingly excellent at her craft. Even her tweets read like short stories and many of her games can be summed up as brief, but lasting, experiences. She has a way with words and visuals that sculpt an unsettling world of dread where you’re not sure what exactly you’re looking at but know it will drag you into an otherworld. Anatomy is an ominous exploration of a house with audio recordings along the way to guide the player through their descent, and is currently my favorite title by the brilliant indie dev. You can find the game on itch.io.
Note: I’m a proud supporter of Kitty Horrorshow’s Patreon.
It might be strange to see a list of mostly artistic, emotional games include a title about being the best murder dude possible but one of my guiltiest pleasures is the Hitman franchise. Forgoing the mundane experience of Absolution, IO Interactive experimented with an episodic structure that brought life--and humor--back into Agent 47. I haven’t had this much fun in the series since Blood Money, which up until this point was my favorite one to replay. It turns out to reinvigorate the world’s most ridiculous assassin, the team at IO just needed to give fewer fucks about being broody or gritty, and learn to just have fun with their world.
Historical, political, emotional. This is an incredible game by iNK Stories which plays like an interactive thriller and sociological artifact, using photography to showcase the tensions and unrest of the Iranian Revolution. The game itself is currently banned in Iran, joining the ranks of many critically acclaimed works and artists whose voices are deemed too controversial or outright propagandist. A raised fist in solidarity goes to the developers, who took a huge risk telling such a meaningful story.
All right peeps, that’s my list. Backlog, I don’t like you and you don’t like me, but it’s time to get throu--wait never mind I found a new Skyrim SE mod I want to try out.