Bryant Francis (@rbryant2012) is a contributing editor at Gamasutra.
Oh god, we did it. We survived 2016.
If you're reading this, I am alive and somewhere in the Southern California Wastes, racing down a broken highway in search of water. But I still took the time to figure out my top 10 games of 2016.
If I had to identify a common theme, it would be that they all successfully showcase how common game design decisions can interrogate our basic humanity, they show how far games have come, and they demonstrate what games can do with systems to bring people together.
And now, in alphabetical order:
Developer: Heart Machine
Hyper Light Drifter is the only game I played in 2016 that managed to truly capture a sense of eeriness and dread. From its hybrid pixel art style to its gorgeous soundtrack, it's a game that conjures a setting like no other and then proceeds to tell you literally nothing about it.
Only the barest bits of combat and system design are properly taught to the player before they have to, in a fit of near-blindness, navigate through four hostile zones on a quest to discover---I'm not sure precisely?
But that sense of unknowing, combined with rigorous difficulty that rewards both memorization and improvisation, leaves a hell of a mark, and even though much of my time with the game was spent swearing in frustration and trying to find new depths of patience for increasingly difficult bosses, the space I was in and the sights I saw consistently chilled me and left me shuddering. For this rare occassion, difficult game design became a part of the world itself, my precisely timed dodges and gambling shotgun blasts my only tool against what seemed at times to be an existential threat not just to the Drifter, but to me.
Lately I've become frustrated and slightly jaded with the free-to-play mobile space because its high user-acquisition costs and trend-driven market have kneecapped the possibility of anyone but the largest developers in the space to develop interesting games.
But then TinyCo went and got all of my comic book-loving friends hooked on their latest game Marvel Avengers Academy, sharing screenshots of witty dialogue from heroes that I thought I knew the limits of. Curious, I downloaded it---and haven't been able to put it down since. This game is a masterclass in free-to-play design, packaging a sense of discovery and humor behind many conventional free-to-play mechanics, and successfully providing clear markers for how much money players can expect to spend in order to receive a certain kind of experience.
Instead of relying on a random-number generator system to encourage players to spend, it promises a clear set of rewards and content if they decide to purchase characters during the game's many live events. It's almost like buying individual missions for the game, which provide you with some advantages for completing quests and building your Academy.
And again, I can't stress how funny and warm this game is. Iron Man is given surprising depth when faced with insecurity over his own death, Loki, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel and Black Widow gain nuance when viewed through the lens of a high-school romantic quadrilateral, and characters like Spider-Gwen, Peggy Carter, and more are given a chance to have conversations characters who've died in their original stories. Writer Allen Warner has taken that opportunity to make those moments count, instead of just always playing it for laughs.
"The world could always use more heroes."
We all do remember that up until this point, Blizzard's never shipped a first-person shooter, right? Let alone a team-driven one? That's live, and has characters, updates, patches and tweaking constantly going in? And yet Overwatch is easily one of the best in the current competitive gaming genre. Its accessibility curve far outpaces its MOBA cousins even as it borrows from some of their general character play, its assymetrical map design consistently provides opportunities for all of its huge cast of characters, and its general sense of joy and energy make for unique moments that aren't just about the thrill of the kill, but about teamwork, perseverence, and just plain goofiness.
And on top of that, its a game whose character design is so vibrantly diverse it really shows what gets players to connect with virtual heroes. While other games have tried to lay claim to this territory with ironic or directly pop culture-inspired characters, the ground-up approach Blizzard's taken has left huge open doors with how to interpret them, and that's given players of all backgrounds a chance to feel welcome and at home.
Blizzard's still grappling with the same online toxicity problems as almost every other competitive game on the market, but given the fact that the company shown a willingness to even patch out phrases like "GG EZ" in order to improve the social experience, it's a sign that the company sees Overwatch as a means to tackle that online phenomenon as well.
Developer: D-Pad Studio
Owlboy is the best possible version of a game that I grew playing on the Game Boy Advance (though many of our readers would no doubt compare it to games of the SNES era). It's a side-scrolling masterpiece that elegantly weaves the very geometry and shape of its challenges back into the story in order to create the kind of fiction you really could only understand in a video game. D-Pad Studio has gone the extra mile to make everything from health pickups to screw-driven puzzle systems feel like a natural part of this 2D-character's world, giving us an ability to connect with Otus and his plucky gang as the moments where the game takes control away from the player don't feel so far-fetched as when they're in control.
And like last year's Undertale, it's just such a sweet game with an optimistic outlook even in the face of certain danger. In its finale, it pleads with the player to recognize that it's not worth it to sacfice others just to try and do the right thing, and when you get down to it, your friends are more powerful than any ancient artifact or powerful macguffin.
Developer: Night School Studios
Oxenfree landed in a year that seemed dedicated to mixing up narrative systems in games, but it's worth remembering this spooky indie game because Night School Studios genuinely cracked the code of the in-game conversation. Many horror games build their sense of atmosphere and fear out of lone heroes, but the fact that Oxenfree heroine Alex is always accompanied by a friend or family member means it has to layer its spooky sensibilities along with the pointless, teenage conversation that's frequently layered with double meaning.
And it works! The arguments add stress to an already horrific night, the conversatiohn trees add a layer of fear of not knowing how people will interpret your actions, and the eventual network features that let players leave hints for each other all unite around a game that is fundamentally about communication. And to top it off, it's probably one of the few games this year that manages to combine dumb sibling bonding and terrifying images of suicide with an even hand.
Oxenfree, like last year's Until Dawn, is interested in the classic American genre of teenage horror, but provides its own spin on the subject that helps us as an industry understand what it means to have players talk with NPCs in a new kind of fashion.
If you're like me, and have ever had to endure the relentless inhumanity of apps like Tinder, Reigns is an utter delight. It's a monarchy simulator that mixes the card-based swiping UI of Tinder with a bit of interactive fiction and system management to help players blunder their way through the lives of monarch after monarch, seeing just how far south things can go while trying to negotiate the many factions holding sway over your kingdom.
It's pitch-black, frequently funny, rewards failure by making it a part of the discovery loop, and has a clear mindset about the world that has just the right balance of nihilism and mysticism to give it a unique voice. Even little details like the blinking characters help players stumble about blindly in the dark, and it's a polished piece of indie success that deserves top recognition this year.
That said, I can't let it go without passing that as funny and ruthless as Reigns is, the way the game tackles race through its systems is deeply disheartening, and maybe the one thing in need of improvement if you want to borrow from its design. Slavery, crusades, and genocide are codified into its systems in an ungainly fashion and the game seems to too-easily lump it in as part of the 'dark, forbidden humor' that makes it work. When the game came out, I saw some developers of color commenting that this part of the humor wasn't sitting as well with them, and I hope it's the kind of thing Nerial can improve on in future games.
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
The first Titanfall was an interesting multiplayer experiment for the Xbox One. Its successor Titanfall 2 is a smash-and-grab runaway success of game design. Its campaign is an unhinged piece of joy, with not a single level repeating itself in terms of overall structure, and BT-7274's deadpan presence keeping a thread of humanity for players to hold on to as they wallrun from one point to another. Since levels aren't focused on introducing new guns, but rather new navigational spaces and Titan abilities, that leaves its gun design to be more focused on giving players tools that suppport their skill level as opposed to a broad sense of mastery. Even its difficulty system does as much as possible to encourage players to just keep moving, casting off the tradition of cover-based shooting for something that proves to just be delightful.
It's a B-movie science fiction film distilled into video game form, anchored around a set of gimmicks that create compelling levels and help set up a strong multiplayer, and its huge sense of space made me "get" why this generation of consoles is able to provide fun, not just visual polish.
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
This has been a pretty bright, fun list. But as 2016 comes to a somewhat grim end punctuated with an increase in hate crimes in the United States, actual Nazis gathering in Washington D.C and the devastating attacks on Alleppo and Palmyra in Syria, I found myself dwelling on Obsidian's latest RPG Tyranny, and how it's able to grant a small nugget of understanding in this madness.
Most importantly, Tyranny provides a lens for understanding evil because it's interested in showing how evil is multifaceted. Tyranny's strength as a role-playing game is that through dialogue and occassionally its combat systems, the player character is forced to examine why they should help any of the game's various factions, and what series of events will directly lead to the worst possible outcomes the player perpetrates.
It's a game that reveals how despotic forces, when split into factions, can still act under the guise of "good" while attempting to pit different individuals against each other, and frequently, as a result of the affinity systems, it properly identifies how casual evils can occur out of a specific kind of need.
This, frustratingly, may be how the evils of our world happen on a day-to-day basis, a telling story about how simple emotions like annoyance, pettiness, and even just a pirimitive desire to lash out can drive people down dark paths. Obsidian is to be commended for finding a forum to navigate these dark conversations, as well as improving their dialogue system with lessons learned from interactive fiction in order to meaningfully construct a moral viewpoint through the language of play.
Developer: Blue Isle Studios
Valley is a game about balance and wonder that shows how high-speed, first-person movement can still be a formula for good narrative design. It snuck out earlier this year from Blue Isle Studios, the developers of Slender: The 8 Pages, and it's a game that continually finds new and interesting ways to get players to experiment with speed and physics and introduces them to a life/death system that seducingly lures players into the stakes of its Indiana Jones-inspired setting.
Valley's best moments range from linear racetracks through underground tunnels to high-speed puzzles that send them bouncing off the walls and scaling impossibly high scaffolding. It's a spectacular combination of tight traversal systems and meaningful interactions with the world that sets it apart from games only able to explore one or the other.
Developer: CD Projket Red
Last year I talked about how The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt proved to be a world of short stories and great experiences that gave breadth and depth to Geralt and the strange world he inhabited. This year, CD Projekt Red wrote the final chapter in Geralt's story with The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (the possibly literal final chapter, since this DLC finishes many plot threads that were started IN THE BOOKS) and managed to build an entire new little world for players to explore and find real closure in Geralt's adventure.
Much of the praise for Blood and Wine is the same praise that was sung for The Witcher 3 last year, but in this space I want to commemorate how far CD Projekt Red has gone to make their grim fantasy RPG still a place for goofy, wonderful, and must-see moments that defy cynicism. In this DLC, Geralt can talk with his horse, dive into a literal book of fairy tales, go through the paperwork of getting a bank account, and argue at length over morality with a vampire.
This, frankly, is what helps make for great game storytelling. Not a slavish commitment to the Hero's Journey or some plot twist that blows us all away, but smartly set-up dramatic scenes that push characters to their limits to show us who they truly are.
Hungry for more 2016 best-of? Gamasutra published its picks for 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, Katherine Cross, Chris Baker, Alissa McAloon, Chris Kerr, Phill Cameron, and Brandon Sheffield.