Katherine Cross is a contributor to Gamasutra.
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The latest entry in this venerable series deserves ample credit for keeping things fresh and reinventing the generation-old strategy game yet again, and unlike its predecessor its vanilla version feels finished. Though I look forward to the inevitable expansion, Civ VI out of the box uses its new tricks and systems to offer an experience that definitely got me into the “one more turn” headspace. By “unstacking” cities and allowing players to build wonders and specialised districts on hexes outside the city centre, Firaxis provides both a visual and tactical treat.
Some videogame music just stays with you, and “Hey Judy” has become part of 2016’s soundtrack for me, thanks to this brilliant first game by French-based studio Ocelot Society. Event is a short but powerful game where you play an astronaut in a retrofuturist alternate-history, trapped on a derelict spaceship with an emotionally unstable AI. In order to escape, you have to talk to Kaizen, the AI, in your own words. In keeping with the game’s 80’s-themed tech, the AI can only be interacted with via a typing interface. Event is lovingly sculpted around a chatbot, and how you talk to them can make all the difference in the world. I’m a known AI partisan who welcomes her forthcoming robot overlords, but it’s such an easy thing to larder with trite cliches and bad writing when used in fiction. Ocelot Society, by contrast, wove a moving story around Kaizen that gently entices us to consider deep questions that will stay with you long after you quit the game.
Though it came out at the very start of this tempestuous year, we shouldn’t forget this masterwork. Campo Santo distinguished itself with this “walking simulator” that sees you take on the role of a troubled man who volunteers to be a fire watcher in a fictional national park. As a provocative meditation on loneliness and solitude, it is without peer. But the environment tells its own story, using the same arboreal settings to convey starkly different moods at different points in the game, going from serene to sinister and back again with ease.
While this list is strictly non-hierarchical, The Ice-Bound Concordance is far and away the most innovative game on this list. The application itself is free but what you buy is a physical book that serves as the base for this augmented-reality title. You have to scan pages from this book, using either an iPad camera or a webcam in order to reveal its hidden messages and images, and thereby advance through the story. The tale itself, which sees you work with an AI recreation of a deceased author as you try to complete his unfinished masterpiece about a haunted Antarctic base, is a revelation that explores what it means to be an author and editor at the very edge of humanity. This is a “story-based game” in every possible sense.
This Australian title sees you, well, kill time at lightspeed. You play a person on an intergalactic journey that takes only minutes from their perspective, while years go by on Earth. You interact via a Twitter-like interface, talking to your Earthbound friends as the minutes/years tick by, watching the world change in the blink of an eye. This creative premise is beautifully executed; despite occasionally uneven writing--inevitable, as it was crowdsourced--the world intrigues, and you end up caring about the people behind the game’s yellow pixelated avatars more than you might expect.
I’ve said it til I’m blue in the face: videogames are uniquely poised to give us interesting sexual experiences, yet too often descend into either puritanical shading or puerile nonsense. Christine Love and her team at Love Conquers All Games gave us a nonpareil proof of concept this year with a fantastic (and very often funny) game about relationships that gives us the most mature portrayal of BDSM I’ve yet seen in a videogame. It is an achingly sexy affair built around the frame of a visual novel and a self-aware plot that glories in its extravagances and silliness. Though billed as a romantic comedy, the game is both a sendup of that genre, and offers unusually deep insight into relationships, authenticity, and consent.
“We remember something new with each telling,” this game begins. This beautiful roguelike/personality-test-RPG from Montreal-based Kitfox Games is an oddly serene experience for a title that has so much combat. But its mystical story, set in a time lost tribal prehistory, draws you in. Its replayability becomes a core mechanic that expresses the very nature of oral history, as you replay an ancient epic quest to save a Goddess of the Moon. The story, characters, and gameplay all recommend this title, and I only wish I could spend more time in its delightful world.
Along with Ice-Bound this is another game about survival in an abandoned Antarctic base, but it makes its magic by ditching the magical realism and sci-fi altogether by giving us a simple story about a downed polar pilot who has to find a way to survive a terrifying winter storm at the bottom of the world. There’s not much of a story or characterisation here; instead you have simple but effective gameplay that sees you puzzle out how to scavenge the base for your survival needs. Warmth itself is a scarce commodity you have to manage. But unlike other survival games, the presentation is minimalist; there are no health bars or meters to manage, you simply have to assess your needs by intuition and feel. The result is chillingly fun.
I didn’t start this year thinking I’d be putting an MMO on this list. As much affection I have for the genre, there’s no denying it’s in a bad way. Bioware’s The Old Republic (SWTOR) has exceeded expectations for me, however, with its fantastic chapter-based endgame-- Knights of the Fallen Empire, and this year’s expansion, Knights of the Eternal Throne. It tells a rich story of intergalactic war that, at long last, feels worthy of the KotOR legacy. With strong writing and characterisation, these expansions--though mostly a single player experience grafted onto an MMO--have a powerful narrative through-line that deftly uses its core themes of Fate and Family.
It remains to be seen whether this will revitalise the game’s subscriber base. You can instantly level to 60 or 65 to start the new content and avoid the multiplayer aspect of the game entirely, after all. And the expansion does come with a needlessly grindy “Command Points” alternate advancement system, which kicks in at the new level cap of 70, which rewards players with upgrades entirely on the basis of an RNG loot box. But Knights of the Eternal Throne provides a stirring conclusion to a story that I now mentally consider KotOR3.
Cyberpunk anime bartending; what could go wrong? A lot, actually, and yet despite that the game’s writers and designers avoided so many possible pratfalls to create a beautifully rendered world that tells a bartender’s bittersweet story. You mix drinks and subtly shape the lives of your colourful patrons while striving to make rent at the end of the month. The game’s characters are memorable and mash together a variety of cultural influences to tell its story, giving us delightful a send up of anime conventions and 4chan culture along the way.
Hungry for more 2016 best-of? Gamasutra published its Top 10 Games of 2016, Top 10 Game Developers of 2016, Top 5 Trends of 2016 and Top 5 Events that shaped the year. Gamasutra contributors also each wrote up a personal top-five list -- and you can read them here: Kris Graft, Alex Wawro, Bryant Francis, Chris Baker, Alissa McAloon, Chris Kerr, Phill Cameron, and Brandon Sheffield.