It's the list-making time of year here at Gamasutra. Every December, we each agonize over our own personal Top 10 games of they year.
But we also feel that it's important to offer a list of games that we have discussed and decided upon collectively. Our criterion: “the games that will remain in our memories as having defined the year for technical sophistication, storytelling, innovation, and pure intangible experience value.”
Here they are, listed by title in alphabetical order -- not ranked. The commentary is taken from our individual contributors' write-ups, and you'll find links to those at the end of this list. You can also read our list of the top 10 game developers of 2016, the 5 trends that defined the industry in 2015, and 5 events that shook it, too.
Clash Royale is an imperfect game, but the concept is excellent. It's a light PVP RTS were action takes place primarily in two lanes. There are dozens of units to choose from, making up an 8-card deck, meaning combinations are myriad.
At its best, the game is about precise placement of units to psyche out your opponent, turn your defense into a big push, and create new niches in the metagame for your deck to thrive in.
While it is a PVP game, and you can win or lose trophies during your daily battles (which is stressful), the clans are where I feel the game really shines. You can have a clan of up to 50 people, and there you can experiment with new deck combinations, trade cards with allies, and generally play around with strategies risk-free.
My clan consists of about one third Gamasutra and Insertcredit.com alumni, and two thirds some community from West Sumatra who found our clan somehow. It's great! Across language barriers, we all increase each others' skills.
Ultimately, a light PVP RTS is a great idea, and I personally enjoy using cards others don't, to make for a deck that surprises people when it works (three musketeers up in here). The free-to-play aspects of the game are pretty light, and the game can be played with minimal investment so long as you've got a clan to spend your time with. As long as new cards continue to keep the game fresh, I'll keep playing. (crying king emote). - Brandon Sheffield
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
It was a long time coming, having gone through one major, unreleased iteration in Doom 4, but Doom 2016 delivered on what made the original so revered. It stands tall among today’s shooters, but retains the elements that make Doom, Doom. Fast, gory, precise, and overall super crunchy, Doom uses the franchise’s legacy as a strong inspiration rather than a template to blindly follow.
id Software identified the spirit of Doom, stuck to those core values throughout development, and conveyed that in an FPS that pays homage while feeling thoroughly modern. It’s the best-feeling shooter of the year. (Also: that Mick Gordon metal soundtrack, yeah.) - Kris Graft
Firewatch is a game about two people talking in the woods, and I love it. It’s a great example of how a team can craft a game with vibrant, believable characters and meaningful choices without falling back on anointing the player as the savior/destroyer of the world.
Firewatch protagonist Henry is an unremarkable man with a bit of paunch and a bad few years under his belt; the game strikes a great balance, design-wise, between showing who Henry is (by fading in on him writing a letter, for example, or automatically annotating the map with his musings as the game progresses) and affording the player room to tell his story through dialogue choices.
The results of those choices are wonderfully delivered, too; nailing comedic timing and emotional subtext in voice acting is tricky business, but I think performers Rich Sommer (Henry) and Crissy Jones (Delilah) pulled it off beautifully here. The story of my time with Firewatch is utterly trite and totally true: whether you love or hate the ending, the best part is the journey.
- Alex Wawro
Job Simulator on the Vive was one of my first experiences with VR, and honestly, I think it’s one of the best games to use to introduce someone to virtual reality. It offers a choice of jobs to experience - such as mechanic, chef, or office worker - and then guides players through completing comical approximations of tasks that represent each job.
For example, as the chef you might crack eggs to bake a cake and then add in a literal flower rather than flour to complete the dough. The little tasks through Job Simulator also give players a lot of freedom to just have fun doing really dumb things in VR.
There are a lot of neat VR games that let you explore dramatic stories and solve complicated puzzles, but sometimes you just want a game that lets you throw raw steak at your floating robot boss. - Alissa McAloon
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
The Last Guardian is so full of technical flaws, some of which could be attributed to a tumultuous, famously long development cycle, some of it due to choices made by Fumito Ueda. The camera is awful, the level design is incredibly unintuitive, your beastly companion Trico is unwieldy. So that leaves me to ask, why does this belong on my list?
The best answer I can come up with is that Ueda’s vision of companionship shined bright enough that The Last Guardian’s flaws didn’t matter much to me. Trico is the most emotive companion ever in a video game – even when uncooperative, it’s easy to just chalk that up to a streak of disobedience that any dog or cat owner is familiar with (classic “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” scenario).
Having a companion like Trico gives you motivation and reason to push through obstacles, both intentionally- and unintentionally-designed. No other game this year had an NPC that I cared about more than that stubborn cat-bird-dogasaur. - Kris Graft
Publisher: 2K Games
If you traveled back in time six months and told past-me that Mafia III would be one of my favorite games of the year, I’d have cheerfully A) asked after your wondrous time machine and B) said you were nuts.
Hangar 13’s debut game appears, on its surface, to be an unremarkable open-world game about gangsters, with little to set it apart from all the other open-world gangster games beyond a novel setting.
But what a setting it is! I lived in Louisiana for a time, and while the city we called home bore little resemblance to Mafia III’s simulacrum of late-’60s New Orleans, there are little details that feel right: the color of the light, for one, or the stark flatness of the landscape.
The game’s design also does a great job at conveying, through systems, some small piece of what I think it must feel like to be a mixed-race man living in the South. For example, there are two separate on-screen indicators that show the player where danger is -- one is a standard red reticle that appears during combat and spikes in different directions to indicate where enemies (and damage) are coming from, while the other is a blue reticle that shows the player where nearby police are and how strongly they’re looking at you.
In just about every other open-world game, that latter indicator would only appear when the player had committed a crime and was being hunted by police. In Mafia III, the police indicator is a constant -- it will always appear and show you that the police are watching you, even if you’ve done nothing wrong.
It’s a simple but effective system, one that serves a useful gameplay purpose (by informing the player when they should step carefully) while also fostering an oppressive feeling of judgment. - Alex Wawro
I paid zero attention to Overwatch before its launch, but it has dominated my free time since releasing earlier this year. The hero shooter is remarkably easy to pick up, thanks in no small part to a diverse cast of playable heroes. Currently, there are twenty-three characters to choose from, though Blizzard has been periodically adding to that roster since the game's release.
Overwatch quickly picked up a following in the competitive community but despite this, it still remains a game that can be enjoyed by players of different skill. With such a wide library of heroes to choose from, it's easy to find a character to start learning.
The game itself has a way of teaching players organically which characters work best in which situation, and there are no pay-to-win microtransactions built into the game. I admire Overwatch for its massive eSports presence, but I consider it one of my top ten games of this year for being a competitive game that is equally appealing to casual players. - Alissa McAloon
Publisher: Chucklefish Games
I’ve been playing fantasy farming simulators for well over half my life at this point and I still have no idea how they’re as fun as they are. For the longest time, the Harvest Moon series has all but dominated that genre, but somehow ConcernedApe (AKA Eric Barone) has beat Harvest Moon at its own game.
Barone’s game Stardew Valley captures nearly everything long-time fans love about the Harvest Moon series. Players start on an overgrown farm with nearly nothing, and are able to create a thriving farm through a little thing called resource management.
Planting the right crops and taking good care of animals is the simple way to explain the farming side of the game, but there’re a lot of deeper strategies involved. Players have gone as far as to set up elaborate spreadsheets detailing the exact profit per month generated by different types of crops. It’s honestly amazing.
Stardew Valley merges those basic farming mechanics with a crafting system and basic RPG-like leveling as well to create a game that players can easily dump hundreds of hours into. Personally, I’m sitting right around 140 and I’ve only played maybe four in-game years. - Alissa McAloon
Publisher: Electronic Arts
There’s often a steep contrast between military-themed shooters like Titanfall 2 and other shooters on this list like Overwatch or Doom. Where games like those emphasize playfulness or joy on the surface, military shooters—even science fiction-themed ones—take inspiration from military design to make heroic or dire moments, but lose something in raw playfulness.
Thankfully, that isn’t the case for Titanfall 2, one of many shooters that deserves to be celebrated in 2016 for featuring innovative design, but one in particular that deserves to be championed because it returns the joy of movement and velocity to a genre that’s adapted somberness.
It’s a game that constantly encourages the player to experiment with speed and carves individual levels and scenarios that have such a strong identity it almost feels like Valve’s classic Half-Life levels.
Across multiplayer and single-player (which shouldn’t even have existed, given how much Titanfall stretched itself thin trying to be a dedicated multiplayer game like Overwatch) Respawn has mixed a dash of charm and with a love of physics to create a game that fundamentally understands why shooters can still showcase top-notch design.
Plus it helps that BT-7274 is a REAL PAL. - Bryant Francis
The marketing term used for Thumper has been “rhythm violence,” and it’s absolutely fitting. Thumper rewards precision visually and aurally, making you feel like you’re not just tapping buttons to a beat, but rather influencing the composition of the percussion-heavy music, at the same time destroying everything in your path.
When you play Thumper, you’re just pressing a button and combining that with a direction, at designated points on a track. That physical simplicity allows you to lose your senses to the game, as you’re shoved down the throat of a grotesque monster. Thumper is the perfect intersection audio-visual intensity; it’s synesthesia on a hard drive. - Kris Graft
Hungry for more 2016 best-of? Gamasutra published its 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-ten list -- and you can read them here: Kris Graft, Alex Wawro, Bryant Francis, Katherine Cross, Chris Baker, Alissa McAloon, Chris Kerr, Phill Cameron, and Brandon Sheffield.