The Top Ten Games of 2016

[Originally published December 14, 2016]

Ahhhh, winter, when a young man’s fancy turns to Writing Really Short Intros So You Can Just Read The Listicle That You Came For.

 

10) Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst

Have you ever botched homemade pizza? You start off so excited – thrilled, even – to make and eat your creation. You get the dough all ready, but – oh, what’s that? – your hand slips, and too much oil gets in the pot. Aw shucks, you think. Well, this is fine, I just need to lay the cheese right. But then – like an Olive Garden waiter – you crush this oily batter under a small mountain of shredded parm. You recoil – oh god, oh no, not again – and have a minor flashback to your time working at the Olive Garden (the manager, glistening with sweat, pelting you with wet, hefty clumps of overcooked fagioli). Your mind begins to race and invent excuses for your fledgling pizzabomination. Nobody ever complained about too much cheese, right? (wrong) Surely, the oven will take care of this? (it won’t) You lay the pepperoni, and throw the pizza in the oven, spending the next 15 minutes of baking in bliss, such gentle bliss, and as you are cleaning up – scraping up pieces of fallen cheese, wrestling them from the floor of your ant-infested apartment – you see an unopened bottle of sauce, oh christ, that telltale bottle, and you realize that it is FAR too late to leave an emergency mid-bake coating of sauce, but before you can comprehend the magnitude of your failure, before you can gaze upon your work with hate and horror, before the gruesome totality of your Dr. Frankenpizza’s Monster can become truly apparent in your mind –

Something within you breaks.

And you take that pizza out – that god-damned awful ‘za (sauce-less pizza is for criminals and the morally bankrupt) – and you put it in your stupid, can’t-bake-for-shit mouth, and you trick yourself into enjoying every grim, sauce-less bite.

So that’s sort of what it feels like to play Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst after waiting 10 years for its release. And/or eat my garbage pizza.

9) Inside

I don’t know if you all have taken the time to see the film Under the Skin, but you should. From Film Crit Hulk’s essay on the film:

“While Under the Skin is rightfully lauded for its dense symbolism and rich thematic core, I would argue that it also does what all the best art films do, in that you are able to watch it without a lick of symbolic understanding and still enjoy it on a deeper visceral level.”

This is Inside. A takeaway that begins and ends at wow, those sure were some kooky puzzles! simply does not exist. Inside is undeniably interested in broader problems than ‘how do I get from Point A to Point B without drowning.’ It is about toying with the connection between player and protagonist. It is about sly, sardonic takedowns of people who get all the ‘cheevos. It is about class, and industrialization, and Marxist thought. I made a whole video about this – you should watch it, it’s very good – but none of this fluff is crucial to enjoying a striking artistic puzzle game about a boy in a red shirt.

Inside is a game that you don’t *have* to symbolically engage with, but you should. It is one of the most visually intentional works I’ve come across in quite some time, and you’d be a fool to not try and pick it apart.

 

8) Dishonored 2

Titanfall 2, imma let you finish, but Dishonored 2 had the best time-travel gimmick of 2016.

Fight me about it.

 

7) Steep

The Developers of Steep would probably tell me that I played their game wrong, that, no, you’re actually supposed to play with other ‘powder rats,’ not on your own. But this is my mountain, and everyone else can fuck right off of it. I am positively devoid of the want or need for a competitive sports game; let me pop my wet stunts and break my weak, human bones in leisure and solace.

This changed Steep from a game about, ostensibly, racing from top to bottom, into a game about picking apart the (gorgeous) scenery and uncovering unique ways to trick around the mountain. I could turn on myfavorite podcasts, pour myself a couple drinks, and not have to stress about whether or not I was Doing The Race Thing fast enough. Steep is one of those nice, quiet games where you don’t need a codified goal to enjoy play; where – sometimes – its freedom to tool around is all it needs to succeed.

 

6) Hyper Light Drifter

Despite promising myself I would remember Hyper Light Drifter come year’s end, I failed to include it on earlier drafts of this list. Allow me to make up for that by telling you why – out of all the games on this list – Hyper Light Drifter is the only one I require you to play.

Drifter is an audiovisual experience, but – unlike Inside – it has a hyper-focused emotional core. An immense weight lies upon this game – its world, its actions, its sounds. It is hopeless to the point of being borderline disorientating. Playing through Hyper Light Drifter felt like the way twitter read on the day after the election. Surreal and devastated. It will smother you with its depressedly empathic undercurrents, even before you can really get a handle on the capital-P Plot of the game, and long afterwards, still.

My favorite musicians put themselves into their art – Mark Kozelek, Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain – but few games capture ‘being’ in quite the same way. They struggle to overcome large teams and loose visions. But Alx Preston, while suffering from a life-long heart condition, managed to distill his essence into Hyper Light Drifter. This doesn’t feel like playing a game, it feels like experiencing a being.

Hyper Light Drifter is $20. And even if you forget to put it on your GOTY list, you’ll remember playing it for the rest of your life.

 

5) We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest

This isn’t a video game, but guess what? Tribe dropped an album so good that it transcends ‘medium.’ Y’all are LUCKY I decided to put it at number five out of fairness to the other entries on this list. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service should be #1 on everyone’s lists, forever and ever, until the destruction of This Blue Globe. Top 10 Chicken Recipes? We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Top 10 Gilmore GirlsMoments? We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Top 10 Places We Got It From? I think you get the idea. The singles, the features, the production, the… look. Just listen to this album. It’s SO GOOD.

R.I.P. Phife Dawg. You are missed.

 

4) DOOM

DOOM is special; it will unlock something within you. It will mold you into an entity of mythic violence. You will put down the controller and feel your hands shaking, your muscles tightened, your jaw clenched. You will think your heart is going to fucking explode, and you will love every second of it. DOOM will make you raw.

I listen to the DOOM soundtrack all. the. time. I can’t get enough of it. Driving? Reading? Grocery shopping? I want Mick Gordon blasting my cochlea. I have undoubtedly damaged my hearing by listening to BFG Division too loud, and I could not give less of a fuck. This is indicative of what DOOM does to you. It will make you destroy yourself, and you won’t even care – because destroying yourself feels fucking awesome. DOOM rules, Mick Gordon’s soundtrack rules, and this is the single most empowering game experience of 2016.

My favorite lyric of all time is: “I am the beast I worship.” DOOM is the concentrated embodiment of this idea. Play this game.

 

3) Ladykiller in a Bind

Since you and I, reader, have entered into a mild social contract with this here Top 10 List, I feel obliged to warn you about this next entry:

If you wish to walk away from this piece without a peek into my psychosexual being, that’s perfectly alright – I won’t hold it against you. Just skip to my number two. Or, stay – but only if ya nasty.

I, Thomas Michael Loughney III, am out-of-this-world horny for Christine Love’s My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress As Him And Now I Have To Deal With A Geeky Stalker And A Domme Beauty Who Want Me In A Bind!! or, Ladykiller in a Bind. It is the most erotic game I have played in maybe… forever. Don’t call me a libertine, but I have been a member of various kink groups, at one point or another. Games are rarely flexible enough to scratch this itch; it’s all either vanilla Mass Effect sex,[1] or exploitative, upsetting games featuring anime girls (you know the ones) – and I don’t cotton to that.

What’s special about Ladykiller in a Bind is that it’s not just about sex or fucking (though, yes, those are definitely some central concepts), it’s about how and why people feel comfortable getting down in the way that they do. The social/sexual dynamics at play are where the game draws its delightful eroticism, and boy-howdy, they will get you rowdy.

When I say I’m horny for Ladykiller in a Bind, you can rest assured, I mean this quite literally.

 

2) The Witness

I write Top 10 list entries like I write a pitch. I think it’s more effective to give you an impression of what made for a good idea/experience than what made for a good ‘game.’ With that in mind, allow me tell you the following: The Witness is impossible to pitch. Here, let me try:

The Witness is a game about high-concept philosophical, existential, and linguistic concepts, communicated almost exclusively through maze puzzles.

I’m going to guess I got to about “existential” before you shouted – not whispered, not spoke, but SHOUTED – “Shut the fuck up, Tom.” And now everyone in your office is staring at you, wondering who the hell ‘Tom’ is, and why you’re so angry with him, and should they maybe be contacting HR right now.

See what I mean?

This is largely why The Witness ranked so high; higher, even, than Inside – a game with a very similar dissertative structure. I can communicate an impressionistic description of Inside. The Witness? Not so much. It is something that must be experienced for yourself, otherwise you will never understand what it is, what it’s trying to do, and how it’s trying to do it. You could become immortal and experience literally everything there is to experience, but – without playing The Witnessyou will never know what it is to play The Witness.

 

Honorable Mentions

Quadrilateral Cowboy – Mr. Robot, But Every Time They Hack It Gets Cube-y-er

E•MO•TION Side B, Carly Rae Jepsen – Because I Already Put One Album On This List, Why Stop There?

Catacombs of Solaris – House of Leaves: The Movie: The Novelization: The Game

Dark Souls III – From Software Is Relieved This Series Is Over, And So Am I

Titanfall 2 – I Love My Huge Metal Boyfriend

 

1) Hitman

One day, your moms/pops/relative/roommate will walk by as you, dressed like a UPS man, put a sporty young entrepreneur into a woodchipper and turn him into paste. In this moment, you will have exactly 3 seconds to begin assuring them that you are not a Bad Murder Boy before they start hiding all the sharp objects and call the police. Here is how you pitch your case:

Slow your roll, Mom/Dad/Whoever! Let’s all relax for a second here. Hitman is, actually, a systemic puzzle game, not unlike The Incredible Machine. It’s a game about taking a simple goal (Ball:Hole::Man:Dead) and adding a broad scope of systemic freedoms that culminate in the achievement of said goal. This is the Rube Goldberg phenomenon: simple solutions are rarely the most enjoyable. When provided with a million choices for murder, Bullet->Head seems trite.”

(At this point, pause, and surreptitiously unhook the phone lines)

Hitman is a game that coaxes players into making life difficult for themselves in the name of deliciously macabre fun. People don’t play Hitman to achieve the catharsis of simulated murder, they play it to challenge their problem-solving capabilities. It’s one of those games about the journey, not the destination.”

(Reach into your pocket and take out a coin. If you don’t have change on hand, any small object will do. Flick it, David Blaine style, into the next room, so that your prey is distracted and their back is turned)

“It’s taken the franchise a while to realize this, but now – with the latest entry’s player-created contracts – Hitman has allowed players to take their ingenuity into their own hands, crafting unique problems for their peers to solve. Truly, this is the Minecraft of Murder. Fun for the whole family!”

(Now! Now! Do it now!)

At this point, you may feel free to continue your monologue extolling the virtues of the best entry in the entire Hitman franchise as you relish in your perfect crime. Silent Assasin: 100,000 points. Don’t forget to dispose of the body in quick order, and make sure you wash your hands when you finish.[2]

 

2016 was an absolute garbage fire of a year, but we got some really good games out of it. If there are any on this list you have yet to check out, I cannot recommend them enough. I hope you all enjoy the rest of this ghoulish rotation around the sun. Much love, and see you next year.

 

Tom Loughney is a man with a closet full of dead bodies very clean house and a content oeuvre that includes games writing, video game video analysis, and a storytelling podcast about major media. Follow him on twitter @loughnessmonstr

 

[1] Quick note: not shaming anybody who likes the sex scenes in Mass Effect; they’re just not my bag, and – more than that – they feel intentionally de-eroticized. Those scenes are meant as romantic, not sexual, catharsis.

[2] Thomas Loughney does not support wanton murder, and you should not kill your friends and family because he told you to as a dumb joke.

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