Video Games have been for years, and probably will always be, my favorite medium of entertainment. The stories these games are telling, the way they're telling them, and the lasting impact some of them have are unique to the entertainment industry. I find myself thinking back on experiences in games far more often than I would after a film or a TV series. They have weight, and in many cases, emotional attachment. Couple that with the fact that you're making the choices to progress the story, and it's an experience unlike any other.
2016 saw some of the best games in recent memory released. And while there were a great number of disappointments (No Man's Sky, The Last Guardian, etc.) there were some truly fantastic releases that told meaningful and lasting stories. And that, above all else, is what matters to me. Graphic fidelity is great and all, but tell me a story that I can engage with, and you can have a game of blocks hold my attention.
10. Dishonored 2
It was always going to be difficult to top the original Dishonored. It was a game unlike most that I'd played. With a unique art style, engaging story, interesting protagonist, and First Person stealth, Dishonored was an incredibly surprising success. So when Bethesda and Arkane Studios announced a sequel, I was wary. So often sequels lose sight of what made the original so special and end up being a rehashed version of the original. Dishonored 2 does a good job of taking the formula that made the original so good, and expanding upon it. It feels familiar, and at times that ruins the experience. It's hard not to feel like you've played this mission in certain parts of the game. That largely has to do with the fact that the story is virtually the same as the original, but this time the antagonist isn't nearly as interesting.
But, that doesn't mean there aren't some incredible moments. Corvo returns as a playable character, but in Dishonored 2 we're given the option to play as Emily, the Queen. While a lot of the mechanics are shared between Corvo and Emily, they feel wholly unique. Each with a specific set of skills *insert Liam Neeson's face*. Meaning that playing through the game just once doesn't give you the whole experience; it's a fantastic way to keep the player engaged and continuously returning to the game. I wanted to know how things would play out from each side.
9. Batman Arkham VR
This was an obvious thing to do, but it only because Rocksteady did it. VR, as I've said many times over the last few years, is the future. Not just for games, but for all media. Movies, TV series, all of these properties can thrive in VR. The immersion level is unrivaled, literally placing you wherever the artist wants you to be, then giving you the freedom to look around the entire space. It's an amazing experience that needs to be had.
Again, Batman VR was such an obvious thing to do because everybody wants to be Batman (minus the various cuts and bruises he accrues). The first time you go down into the Batcave and grab the cowl and put it on and a mirror shows your reflection as Batman, it feels like a childhood dream come true. The 3 different Gadgets at your disposal are so much fun to play with, most of all the Batarang, which I proceeded to just fling everywhere. It's short, realistically only taking around an hour or so to complete, but it feels right. The story is a slice of what Batman would typically be doing. There are things to investigate, and doing the investigations as Batman is so incredibly rewarding.
8. Mafia III
This game surprised me in the best possible way. Six years after the release of Mafia II, sees a new protagonist, a new setting, and obviously a new game engine. Set in 1968 in New Bordeaux (a fictional recreation of New Orleans) the story follows Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam Veteran who is out for revenge on the various mob and gangster organization that have taken hold over the city while he was fighting in the war.
The game is absolutely gorgeous, which is often a difficult thing to do in Open World games. The different districts of New Bordeaux feel different and unique, but still feeling like they belong to the same city. And the city feels alive, which is even harder to do in Open World games. The game very much feels like a Martin Scorsese film, showing the FBI and CIA investigation tapes from after the events of the game, then jumping back to the specific time that they're talking about. And, Lincoln Clay is a fantastic lead. Being a black man who fought in Vietnam in 1968 wouldn't have been easy, and that's depicted in the game. The rampant racism that was so prevalent for the time (and sadly still today) is all over the place. If you commit a crime in front of a civilian, depending on what part of town you're in, they'll either rush to call the police or ignore it. The police will, again depending on the part of town, stop you for speeding or ignore it. It's a fascinating world with one of the better stories in a very long time.
A supernatural side scrolling adventure, Oxenfree tells the story of a group of friends who ferry to an abandoned island to have a party. It's a story that uses ghosts accessed via a handheld radio, but is really telling a coming-of-age story about trying to let go of the things that hurt us. Beautifully animated with incredible sound design, and even better dialogue, it's a story that could fit in any medium, but is right at home as a game.
The dialogue options pop up over the main character's head, Alex, giving you the choice of what to say, or not to say anything, as every dialogue option is timed, which makes every playthrough a unique experience. And the story adapts to the dialogue choices you make. Befriend someone who hates your best friend and you'll notice a tension on the relationship. Decide to help someone before someone else and there are ramifications for that. Many games do this, but few do it well. Oxenfree not only does it well, but does it well with style.
6. Battlefield 1
I'm not a fan of multiplayer; it's not why I play games. But the sheer testicular fortitude it took for EA and Dice to make a fast paced First Person Shooter set in World War 1 is one that I'm infinitely appreciative of. It's a setting too often ignored in both film and games. Last year we got the excellent Valiant Hearts, which is uber stylized story of different people and how they survived the war, but it wasn't the ultra realistic look that Dice is capable of.
The game is beautiful, sometimes making it hard to differentiate reality from the game. The lighting and particle effects are incredible. The campaign is what I was most intrigued by, and while being extremely short, it told the story of 6 different people and their experiences in the war. Both by land, tank, and plane, it did a fantastic job of portraying World War 1, if not romanticizing it a bit. The online portion is what most people come for, and while it's not for me, it doesn't disappoint. The 64 player maps are incredible, tasking one side with taking control of a portion of land while the other tries to hold their ground. It's relentless and realistic to the time period.
5. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood VR
Attaching the Until Dawn moniker was unnecessary to the quality of the game, but helped in its marketing. Where last years horror game Until Dawn, placed the player in a 1980's slasher flick, Rush of Blood is an "on-rails" shooter. Literally. You sit in a cart and weave your way through various rollercoaster tracks, all the while fending off enemies with your pistols. It sounds and even looks kind of silly. But once you strap that VR on, you're immediately immersed in the world. The things that jump out at you feel as if they're right in front of you. The movement of the cart on the tracks makes you feel as if you're moving.
VR is an incredible device, and the horror genre is right at home with it. The horror genre has been struggling to actually scare us for years, and that's not just limited to games (although gaming is where horror is best right now with games like Outlast, Amnesia, Until Dawn and the like). Film have slowly lost their power to scare us. But with VR, there are new ways to scare us, even with reusing old tricks like jump scare. That's where Rush of Blood is special. It's a blast to play and is genuinely terrifying.
Playdead's return was a massive success in every imaginable way. Sequels are hard to pull off, but an entirely new IP is even harder. The audience expects a certain level of quality, and after the wildly successful Limbo, Playdead had their work cut out for them. Inside is familiar territory to anyone who played Limbo. Once again, it puts you in the shoes of a young man, and is once again a side scrolling game with plenty of tension to be built. But returning to the familiar isn't always a bad thing (just ask Nintendo, who's been releasing the exact same Mario games for decades and they're still a blast to play). Limbo had the right amount of eerie tension and puzzle solving to keep the story progressing, even if the story was a bit vague.
Inside takes those same mechanics and expands them. This time with a little more color (although, much like the Black and White Limbo, Inside throws a bit more gray in there). The story in Inside is even more vague than Limbo, leaving you thinking "what the hell just happened", but there are enough hints and undertones sprinkled throughout to let you make up your own conclusions about what it all meant. And that's great, every once in a while I don't want to be beat over the head with the story, sometimes I want to have an experience and decide for myself what it meant. Much like "thatgamecompany"'s Journey, which made me feel things I didn't know I could feel, even though I had no idea why I was feeling those things. That's a special thing to do to someone, and is incredibly hard to pull off. Inside never quite reaches that, but the platforming, puzzle solving and atmosphere are enough to draw anyone in.
While it's true the ending is a bit disappointing, that was never what made this journey special to me. It was, in fact, the journey that was special. Firewatch opens with as unique an opening as I've ever seen. You're given the backstory of the man you'll be playing as, Henry. We find the woman of his dreams with him, fall in love with her, watch as they bicker like couples do. Watch as she gets sick and as Henry feels useless to do anything about it. Watch as he distances himself from her to ease the pain. All of this is portrayed through a fantastic soundtrack and words. There are no pictures or videos, but text explaining everything that's happening. The unique part is that you have to make specific dialogue choices in pivotal moments. Do you get the large dog or the small dog? She prefers the undersized Beagle, but Henry wants the intimidating German Shepard. She wants to talk about kids, Henry isn't so keen. Do you humor her or shut her down? It's these sort of options that will shape the kind of man Henry is.
The vast majority of the game is set in the wilderness of Wyoming in 1989. Henry takes a job as a Fire lookout to escape everything that's happening in his real life. His only source of human interaction is with another lookout named Delilah over a walkie-talkie. It's this journey and these interactions that make Firewatch so special. The back-and-forth banter between Henry and Delilah is both adorable and relatable. The artstyle of the wild Wyoming is gorgeous with vibrant red and yellow sunsets and lush green trees. This is the first game that new studio Campo Santo have released, and I can't wait to play more from them.
2. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
It was bittersweet to play this game. The last in the Uncharted series to feature Nathan Drake (Sony and Naughty Dog haven't officially called the Uncharted series over, just that Nathan Drake's story was over). A series that was the champion for Sony for so long, and a series that really put Naughty Dog on the map, it's one that I hold very close to my heart. A game that initially was just an Indiana Jones clone, turned into the universe full of characters that we all love and relationships we wanted to see flourish. A series where subtle humor led into epic battles. That's not to mention the technical prowess that Naughty Dog shows.
With each iteration, it's as if they're just showing off to the rest of the industry (and with the talent at that studio, why wouldn't you?). The original Uncharted was mind blowing. The facial expressions, the way the hair moved, it was stuff nobody ever dreamed of. Almost 10 years later and Uncharted 4 looks better than some movies are even capable of. The subtle twitch of the mouth when Drake lies, or the slow raise of an eyebrow from Elena when she realizes he lied. It really makes the experience that much better. But that's not the only place Naughty Dog excels (again, graphics only mean so much). It's the writing, the story and these characters that set Uncharted and Naughty Dog apart. You genuinely love these characters, when it looked like one of them might die in Uncharted 3, you felt that pain. It's something very few development teams could even dream of accomplishing, but Naughty Dog continues to do it with every game they release (including The Last of Us, their next big franchise).
1. That Dragon, Cancer
This was a hard one. That Dragon, Cancer isn't really a game in the conventional sense, more like a visual novel. Sure there are "missions" to complete and there are obstacles to avoid, but that's not what makes this "game" so special. And visually, this game can't compete with any of the "AAA" titles. Also, it can't really be considered and artstyle as much as it is just shapes. But again, that's not what makes this "game" so special. The thing that makes this game so special is the story.
Created by Ryan and Amy Green, along with a small team under the name Numinous Games, That Dragon, Cancer tells the autobiographical story of Ryan and Amy's son Joel who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at just twelve months old. Joel would fight and live for another four years before finally succumbing to cancer in March of 2014. The game/story shows the ups and downs of those 4 years. The hope, the pain, the fear, the faith and the doubt are all portrayed brilliantly and painfully. Ryan and Amy both voice themselves throughout, adding another layer of vulnerability and pain to the "game".
Ryan came up with the idea for the game when Joel was 4 and still battling. The Green's being devout Christians, saw the extra 4 years they had with Joel, 4 more than the doctors told them he had, were a miracle. He said the inital idea for the game came when Joel was crying. Ryan was trying everything he could to get Joel to stop crying, nothing worked until Ryan sat down, holding Joel, and began to pray to God. Joel immediately stopped crying. Ryan said it reminded him of subverted game mechanics. Where you're trying to accomplish a goal and nothing works until you do the one thing that makes sense. He came up with the name from a story he told his other children about how Joel was a brave knight who was battling That Dragon, Cancer.
Fox and the Hound and Homeward Bound are really the only two things that turn me into a crying mess. This game messed me up. I openly wept, hard after playing this. This is why it's so special. Sure, if this were a movie it would be powerful, but actually partaking in the experience, going through that same hope and pain that the Green's endured, watching as they never lost their faith, even if it faltered for a moment, is an experience unlike anything I've ever seen. It's a "game" that deserves to be played and deserves attention.
Unravel; Layers of Fear; The Last Guardian; London Heist VR
All images and video courtesy of the studios and developers.